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Unconvincing Presentation Beats Down England’s Pulp

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Now that Oasis has reopened a door in America for British rock, every songwriter with an English passport is going to be measured against that group’s Noel Gallagher.

One who compares most favorably is Jarvis Cocker, whose band Pulp headlined the Hollywood Grand on Wednesday.

Like Gallagher, Cocker grew up wanting to be a rock star. The difference is that Gallagher knew who he wanted to be--John Lennon, Paul McCartney or both--while Cocker has never been able to decide on a single figure or style.

On stage and record, the singer-writer sometimes aims for the cabaret romanticism of David Bowie. Or is it Bryan Ferry?

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He also likes the dance-floor liberation of ABC. Or is it the Pet Shop Boys?

And you can’t miss the somber confessionals of Leonard Cohen. Or is it Nick Cave?

On Pulp’s “Different Class” album, Cocker combines these elements marvelously in songs that are blessed with equally diverse themes. Over the course of the album, there is an odd juxtaposition of obvious fantasy and apparent autobiography that often leaves you wondering just what is Pulp truth and what is Pulp fiction.

The common thread is conflict--not just the class distinction of so much British rock, but also the struggle between men and women, and the sting of bullies and snobs.

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Pulp’s music translates to U.S. ears far more easily than Blur’s, whose Englishness makes it mostly a cult item here. But Pulp falls short of the soaring, universal appeal of Oasis.

At moments, however, Cocker steps up to the Gallagher level, notably in such tales of underdog self-affirmation as “Common People"--a highlight of Wednesday’s hourlong set--and “Mis-shapes.”

So it was surprising that so many of the songs came across as under-inflated on stage. Mainly, Cocker proved an unconvincing performer. Part of his charm in England, apparently, is a gangly presence that makes his rock stardom look unlikely. But he seemed to force that point too strongly, twisting his arms and body in ways reminiscent of Bowie’s early pantomime moves, only without Bowie’s command.

Oddly, this emphasis on attitude added up to no attitude, leaving most of the songs a touch anonymous. The sinister songs weren’t nasty enough, and the stories of sexual tension were often impotent. Cocker was more effective when he simply picked up an acoustic guitar and put his energy and faith in the material.

If Cocker is to be known in this country as anything more than the man who caused a furor by disrupting Michael Jackson’s song on the Brit Awards, he’s got to find a way to present outstanding songs rather than simply write them.


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