Birmingham Ronnie Scott's

...the singer-songwriter is pop's pariah, but [a]Tom McRae[/a] is a steely force.

"I think," quips Tom McRae, gesturing at the headliner's instruments lying behind him, "that's what my record company meant when they said, 'We'll build up the band slowly.'" Throughout his forthcoming eponymous album, McRae's ostensibly sensible, sensitive songs (think Dylan, Paul Simon) are rendered memorably unsettling by odd arrangements and production tics. But alone with just shards of guitar, McRae still justifies Scott Walker's decision to include him in his Meltdown programme. Unlike most of his singer-songwriter ilk, McRae would rather cause you pain than have you feel his. He may be a frail kid with sweet melodies, but he really spits out 'Bloodless', a subtle, disgusted reflection on political apathy, and the skin-crawling revenge fantasy 'You Cut Her Hair'.

Occasionally, his couplets are cleverer than they are truly resonant, but the lasting impression is of a gifted wordsmith. During the gorgeous 'Draw Down The Stars' he nails the destructive lure of the city with graceful economy. "In a city that kills by constriction/Put your streets around me and squeeze", he sings. And how he sings, trotting out the lines rhythmically, before hovering and spasming in midair, yearning, turning to full-bodied hair-raising in a trice.

From the laughably dramatic (Alanis Morissette) to the deathly dull (David Gray), the singer-songwriter is pop's pariah, but Tom McRae is a steely force. Perhaps, even, this genre's saving grace.

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