Beginning a month-long Monday night residency at this small west London club, McAlmont and Butler's mood is chastened. Formed from the ashes of Thieves (where the tall, black, gay extrovert David McAlmont was singer) and Suede (where the average-sized, white, straight introvert Bernard Butler was guitarist), the duo were always an unlikely combination. But their string-soaked, soul-rock 1995 hit "Yes" had seemed to offer a promising, hybrid way forward for both.
Butler in particular, then widely considered the visionary genius behind Suede without whom the group were bound to falter after his acrimonious 1994 departure, appeared to have landed on his feet.
Tortured by the trappings of stardom, he would have the shameless showman McAlmont to take that weight, while he just played guitar. McAlmont and Butler, though, imploded, too, in a further bout of bad blood and bruised egos. Butler's subsequent solo albums were tepid, and his live performances worse. McAlmont also faltered alone. So here they are again giving themselves a second, last chance to get things right, before their reputations disappear altogether.
They've chosen to play the typically grand productions on their new album, Bring It Back, acoustically during this month. From the start, the album feels like a hesitant, inappropriate half-measure. In a room ringed by chattering music biz types, and low on atmosphere, they struggle to make these unfamiliar new songs heard.
McAlmont seems unusually restrained, careful and conservative in his movements, not risking a show-stopping gesture. Butler, meanwhile, has the same vacant stage presence he displayed in his solo days. He just keeps his floppy-fringed head down and strums, occasionally contributing a pleasant but ignorable harmony, but otherwise sucking life from the space where he stands.
As a live double-act, the pair are simply unbalanced, more Little and Large than Sam and Dave, with Butler as the hapless, skinny Sid. One of the most unsuitable, unwilling performers in pop, he looks like he's been dragged, blinking, from hibernation.
This is nothing new. What's worse is Butler's playing. An intensely imaginative guitar virtuoso when with Suede, this acoustic format seems to have convinced him to do little more than busk.
It's left to McAlmont's own virtuoso vocals to take up the musical slack, a challenge he rises to. Beautifully pure-voiced, he lets notes delicately fade or unobtrusively stretch, only once cracking with the strain of his constant falsetto.
The new songs he and Butler have collaborated on have similar soaring, hopeful sentiments to "Yes". But, even when that hit finally arrives, to big cheers, it fizzles in this cold room. An encore of Elvis's "Burning Love" shows some late soul fire. But otherwise, this has been passive, polite pop.
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