WHAT if they turned the Brixton Academy into an 'erotic temple' and nobody came? A one-off appearance by Grace Jones, former first lady of after-hours decadence, went off distinctly half-cock last week. Grace's audience, stunned by the outrageous pounds 25 entrance levy and mindful of the farce of her last London show, largely, and wisely, opted to stay at home.
The scene is a forlorn one. A couple of dedicated semi-naked hedonists lick beer off each other's shoulders in the bar, semi-famous fashion designers roam the lobby, and a trio of 7ft Brazilian drag queens make a bit of an entrance, but mainly all you notice is the wide open spaces where the punters should be. When Jones finally appears, crouched atop her trusty giant staircase, clad in a gold mask and a Birdwoman-of-Alcatraz costume, she looks in pretty good shape.
And sounds awful. The twists and turns of club classics like 'Nightclubbing' and 'Pull Up to the Bumper' are reduced to an ugly pile-up by the horribly over-amplified backing tapes and Grace's clumsy attempts to project herself over them. If it wasn't so sad it would be funny. She wanders on and off the stage screaming for a drink, and her two Adonis-for-hire backing dancers can't even co-ordinate their hip-thrusts. The exaggerated animalism of Jones's act used to work, because she was a strong enough figure to carry it off. Here, when she launches into five-minute grunting routines, and tries to persuade the crowd to spit into her mouth, it's just embarrassing.
Babes in Toyland are, in contrast, a wholly going concern. Three years ago, they were among the first in a new wave of noisy American all-woman bands to play here. Their gender should not of course have determined their reception, but it has. Their third album, Fontanelle (Southern), has done much to rectify this: it is the first record to capture their full power.
At the Town & Country Club the three Babes, apparently oblivious to waves of sad-case stage-divers, whip up a ferocious maelstrom of sound: churning bass and guitar from new recruit Maureen Herman and founder Kat Bjelland, and brutally effective drumming from the dreadlocked Lori Barbero. This would be a powerful proposition even without Bjelland's remarkable vocals. Between wild grimaces and foot-stamping, she emits a mighty, guttural howl with intermittent chattering - sort of Ozzy Osbourne meets Diamanda Galas.
Their songs lurch through a blasted landscape, but there is something jolly about them, especially the newer ones which show a telling grasp of dynamics. As Barbero leaves the stage, she whips out her Polaroid and takes a snap of the crowd, which by this time is no oil- painting, if it ever was.
There have not been many moments to savour for Happy Mondays recently. Their new album . . . Yes Please] (Factory) has finally emerged from a Barbados triangle of car-crashes, multiple crack-habits, and unsavoury public pronouncements, and now no one seems to like it. The irony is that it is a fascinating piece of work. The musical backdrop, slicked up and opened out by producers Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, is wildly unsuited to Shaun Ryder's garbled missives from beyond the pale, but that makes them more compelling, not less. The poignancy of highlights like 'Total Ringo' and 'Stinkin' Thinkin' ' runs deep. If Ryder can only wake up to the fact that there is no one more boring than the rock-star junkie, his band's best work could still be ahead of them.
'. . .Yes Please]' (FAC420) is out tomorrow. Babes in Toyland play Edinburgh Venue (031-557 3073) tonight, and tour for another week (details 081-800 8949).
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