Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Going solo


Fixing us with a stare, pub poet Andy Gower launches into a collection of acoustic songs about violence, braggadocio and small town depression, the small town in question being Stoke-on-Trent. So far so Noel Gallagher, but Gower at least has both a sense of humour - "I've got some CDs. I'm not on them, I've just got some", he quips drily at one point - and a sense of adventure, most apparent on 'Stepped Out Of Line', which comes to a furious climax with accomplice Craig Coda taking a violin bow to his electric guitar as Gower sings "If you see me walking in your direction / Will you cave my head in?"

As someone else answering to the description of "singer-songwriter" (usually a phrase to have me running for cover or reaching for the shotgun), Derek Meins couldn't be much more different. Put simply, the former frontman of Berwick maverick nearly-weres Eastern Lane is such a magnetic performer it's a wonder there isn't a health warning on the door to remove piercings and steer clear if fitted with a pacemaker.

It's difficult to describe exactly what it is he does - certainly his MySpace site doesn't do him justice - but performance art probably comes closest to the mark. Unlike Patti Plinko, he doesn't have a couple of gas-masked gimps flanking him, just a shaggy squiff of hair and a pair of brown trousers. But the apparently mild-mannered Dr Jekyll sipping his drink between songs becomes in an instant a wild-eyed Mr Hyde, Rufus Wainwright with a filthy mind and more screws loose than a very badly assembled DIY chest of drawers.

Opting to open with an acapella song about taking morphine is certainly one way to grab attention, and whether simulating sex noises to the visible discomfort yet fascination of all present, singing choruses like "If the ocean was made of gin / Then maybe I'd learn how to swim" with a mannered theatricality or indulging in schizophrenic role-play with himself in 'Richard's Going Through Phases', Meins is remarkable.

Glaswegian geniuses The Delgados were that rarest of beasts, a resolutely non-parochial British indie band with a vision and ambition to match those of the Americans. The Great Eastern and in particular Hate exhibited a masterful grasp of dynamics and dramatics. Every song was possessed with poise, beauty and grace, simultaneously bleak in outlook but lush and seductive in execution.

The hopeless romantics split in 2005, soon after the release of fifth LP Universal Audio, and now Emma Pollock is touring in support of her first full-length release as a solo artist, Watch The Fireworks.

In many ways, it’s an unfortunate choice of title; there may not be any damp squibs, but there aren’t many jaw-droppingly explosive moments either. Neatly crafted songs like ‘Paper and Glue’ and piano-led single ‘Adrenaline’ continue along the route towards contentedly centrist pop signposted by Universal Audio rather than blasting off into the stratosphere. There’s little sense of being enveloped in that familiar sumptuous gloom, or of Pollock’s accompanying trio of impeccably coiffed toy-boys being anything more than a backing band of hired hands, as is illustrated when they’re dispensed with for a period mid-set, forced to make their way awkwardly off the front of the Jericho’s stage and into the crowd.

But of course such comparisons, while inevitable, are also horribly unfair. Pollock is an engaging and cheerfully garrulous performer, even when suffering the indignity of her guitar strap slipping off barely ten seconds into the set, and there are enough indications – particularly in album closer ‘The Optimist’, pared down tonight to circumnavigate sound problems without losing any of its power, and ‘Jesus On The Cross’, the darkly comic collaboration with author Louise Welsh for Roddy Woomble’s Ballads Of The Book project – that, instead of dwelling wistfully on past glories, we should be looking forward with relish to those which are yet to come.

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