When a Seal beats a Walrus

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Indy Lifestyle Online
INSTEAD of having a support band at their concert last week, Blur had a comedian. This was his best joke: "I hate to see seal clubbing. He should be at home working on his music."

Not true: the butt of the joke, Seal, has earned a few nights off. He was to the Brits in 1992 what Blur are to the Brits in 1995. But more recently, he has achieved something that Blur - or Suede, or the Stone Roses, or whoever - have not. He has a No 1 single in America; and when most British bands speak of "breaking America" as if "America" were synonymous with "the bank at Monte Carlo", or "the world record over 100m", it's worth asking what Seal has that they do not.

Well, imagine Damon Albarn in his scruffy old school jumper. Got it? Now imagine Seal in his black silk suit, swaying slightly to the music's languorous pulse, his ebony gaze fixed on one member of the audience, whom he serenades in velvet tones. Stand back, Barry White. The Walrus of Love must give way to Seal. For Seal is Medallion Man recast for the Nineties - the traditional gold sink-plug-and-chain updated to a discreet black pendant, the chest wig replaced by the glint of nipple rings. Damon may be sexy in an ironic way. But Seal is unironically gorgeous.

His music is much the same. The band slip from dance vibes to ballads, from "Killer" to a semi-acoustic rendering of the courtly "Kiss From a Rose", with the bassist and keyboard player providing a worthy vocal counterpoint to Seal's own heartrending voice. The subtlety of the rippling lead guitar, the bassist sliding up and down the strings, or strumming all five of them to pamper us with extra layers of harmony ... it's positively luxurious.

But as I say, there's little irony in Seal's spiritual works, and that can mean big trouble in tongue-in-cheek mid-Nineties Britain. Even Suede's last album took a knocking because it took itself too seriously. As for straight-faced, scar-faced Seal, plaintively crooning his mystical lyrics, arms outstretched in the moody low lighting of a high-class club ... no wonder he's now selling better over there than he is over here.

"We have a new record," said Billie Joe, singer/guitarist of Green Day. "It's shorter than the last one. If you want a long record, go listen to your Mom's collection."

Two criticisms. First, it's not very punk to plug your album, especially if "the last one" was Dookie, and that has sold nine million copies. Second, considering that so many of Green Day's audience on Wednesday were teenagers, Mom's collection could well include the Sex Pistols, and the rest of the band's role models.

But Californian punk is not the same as the British variety. Anarchy? Danger? No, Green Day's speciality is pantomime punk, the missing link between the Buzzcocks and the Grumbleweeds.

And sometimes it works. "Welcome to Paradise", "Basket Case", "When I Come Around" and the new "Geek Stink Breath" succeed both in being desperately tuneful pop ditties and in making the Ramones seem arthritic (the Ramones probably are arthritic by now, but you know what I mean). But too many of the songs merely reached competence and were hardly buoyed by their whiny Generation X lyrics: Beavis and Butt-head without the laughs.

There were brief parodies of "Smoke on the Water", "Give Peace a Chance", and other challenging and controversial targets. Billie Joe shouted "Hey- o" and got the audience to shout it back, a bit like Ray Davies has been doing at Kinks concerts for the past decade or two. There was nothing that matched Green Day's outrageous live reputation.

Maybe they were jetlagged. Maybe they were anxious to get offstage - the show lasted barely an hour - to see their wives and baby children. Maybe I should go listen to my Mom's collection.

Lenny Kravitz has certainly been rifling through his Mom's, and by the sound of things she's something of a Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone obsessive. I know, I know, that's what people always say about Kravitz. What choice do we have when his new album, Circus (Virgin), is the same as ever, except more lumpen and laborious? His performance at the Shepherd's Bush Empire was the same again. The drummer was housed in a polythene tent, for some reason, which was appropriate as she drummed as if she were bashing in tent-pegs.

Kravitz used to go through his Mom's wardrobe too, but he has swapped the lacy shirts and feather boas of yore for plain black leathers, and a plain show to go with them. Give Kravitz his due, he can write a great song. In fact, he can write two great songs: "It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over" and "Are You Gonna Go My Way". But can he write three? And do we need Lenny Kravitz when there are so many good Hendrix tribute bands around?

Seal: Manchester Apollo (0161 242 2560), tonight; Wolverhampton Civic Hall (01902 312030), Tues; Glasgow SECC (0141 248 9999), Wed.