Various Artists - The Living Room … Live
(Hope Street Music)

Acoustic nights eh? You either love 'em or hate 'em. Me? Hate 'em, even though I'm a sucker for acoustic music. It's for the same reasons I hate going to the cinema - they're invariably either claustrophobic or empty, both of which are uncomfortable. You have to sit (don't fidget!), often while losing feeling in one leg/arm/arse cheek in silence and "appreciate" the "entertainment", even if it's shit, and then occasionally you're allowed to funnel out in single file for refreshments. All terribly civilised, perhaps, but it's not for me.

And comperes. What on earth are they all about eh? Now comedy ones I can understand - if they're comical. They warm the crowd up for the main event, are a good learning curve for the up-and-comers and are, normally, funny. But at an acoustic night, what on earth is the point? The musicians are more than capable of introducing themselves (well, with a few exceptions), they're rarely funny or informative and, frankly, must purely like the sound of their own voice, or think they're in some way adding to the evening (or that they are, in fact, in some way, "art"). Horses for courses I suppose, but I can't help feeling they're a desperate attempt to make a tired old idea into something "alternative" to the million other acoustic nights out there. It ain't big, and it ain't clever.

And so "The Living Room … Live" gets off to a cracking start with me, being a live CD of excerpts from an acoustic night, which starts with a few choice words from their regular compere, Lord Bridge - 16 seconds of my life I won't get back - which are neither informative, funny or in any way adding to my experience. The best you can say is it will remind those who've been of the bloke who stands around in his dressing gown looking a bit of a twot. Who I'm sure is, in real life, a lovely man. Sorry.

So it's remarkable then, that from here on in it's an excellent album. It ain't perfect by any means, but there's a lot more wheat than chaff. I expect it's value for money too, weighing in at an hour and 18 tracks, except the Hope Street website doesn't seem to have it for sale (although it says it will in the press release from three months ago) and the MySpace page doesn't say so either. Ho hum. But to the music.

The CD really gets going for me on track 4, as the haunting melodian kicks in and Moe Foe do their thing. Something the Living Room pride themselves on is getting bands to strip it all down to the basics for an acoustic set, and "Coffee" is a fine example of how well this can work. Haunting and reggae-tinged, rhythmic and soulful, it's a beautiful tune.

This is followed by the sublime Jamie Woon, sounding a bit like Lenny Kravitz in the vocal department but blending a myriad of guitar styles into an interesting, sinister sound with a lyric that keeps you listening to the bitter end. He's followed by the acrobatic voice of Eliza Wren Payne, who does the lovelorn female singer-songwriter thing by numbers, pretty much, but with enough charm to carry it off.

The next highlight for me, and I never thought I'd say it, is Badwell Ash. For me they're an incomprehensibly bad full band experience, harking back to a solo-sodden '70s hair rock scene we have thankfully left light years behind us, but stripped down they show that underneath the Led Zep-worshipping nonsense are some tunes and a voice to die for. OK, so its really just like a Led Zep slow one (you know, that one where he keeps shouting "Baaaaaaaaaaabeeeeeeey baaaaaabeeeeeey baaaaaabeeeeeey") but however hopelessly reverential, there is undoubtedly talent lurking within. This is where someone tells me it's actually a "Zep" cover and I look even more foolish than normal.

In a show of misguided compilation making, this slice of "serious" music is followed by the daft meanderings of singer-songwriter (and one-time painful compere) Sam Inglis. His stuff can be hit and miss, as is the curse of the comic/clever lyrical artiste, but when he gets it right, like here with "High Jump", he is a joy to behold. A few songs later Ali Whitton shows the other end of the lyrical spectrum, doing the earnest heartfelt thing to perfection, playing the kind of song that silences the room - lovely personal stuff that is demanding I stop typing and listen.

Back, and next up is Bachelor Jack. The live intro is left on, expertly showing a part of the acoustic armoury so often lacking - stage presence. A lively story is as good as a cracking song in this environment, and luckily we get both here, as well as a good dose of imagination and humour, making "Catholic Cheerleader" my favourite song on the album. It is nicely followed by the short but sweet "Living True" from a heavily stripped down Free Love & The Good Plant, who manage to create an ethereal and interesting soundscape in just over a minute.

Things start to wind up with the superb David Darg's melancholic "Chlorine", before an acoustic Colonel Bastard prove a good song is a good song however you play it with the witty, poppy "Secretary" rounding off proceedings. Oh, except for the pointless outro by that posh Lord Bridge bloke. Sigh.

So what have we learnt today children? Well, write (or rip off) ordinary songs with lyrics that rhyme but do nothing else and perform them with a lack of gusto or a sadly fake/reverential accent and you'll get found out. But if you truly excel at writing a song and a lyric, can sing it with honesty and introduce it with character, as many on "The Living Room … Live" do, there is no greater musical thrill than standing up there, stripped to the cockles, while being cheered to the rafters. And you deserve it - bravo.

Chris Marling