The Bluetones are fast becoming pop music's equivalent of the Liberal Democrats. Five years after a brief electoral challenge in the Britpop era, they still write moderate, pleasant tunes and have a reputation as moderate, pleasant chaps. The problem is that they're now only moderately successful. New single Autophilia dropped from 18 to number 40 after only one week, and Manchester Academy isn't full. Many bands, of course, would love the "quandary" of this sort of success, but the Bluetones have always aimed considerably higher. After all, their first - and best - album was called Expecting to Fly.
In attempting the leap, the Tones first attempted to beef-up their sound (with 1998's Return to the Last Chance Saloon) and have now radically altered their image with suits and shorter hair cuts. Neither has quite worked, and the suits - ghastly, it must be said - just don't suit them. The band seem desperate to outgrow their status of terminally indie purveyors of bittersweet adolescent love songs, when their gradually diminishing but devoted fanbase are perfectly happy to keep them that way.
Throughout the gig there are hints that this rather cruel catch-22 is getting to the Bluetones. In his new bespoke outfit, the almost too sincerely charming singer Mark Morris comes over, unfortunately, like an ironic Tommy Steele. "Of course I'm enjoying it!" he says at one point, before introducing a Neil Young cover, Mr Soul, with the words "Now here's one I do like."
The Bluetones may feel less affinity with the older, dewy-eyed songs - mostly written when the band were struggling, naive hopefuls with allergies to ties - but they contain an almost breathtakingly innocent rush that is lacking on their new album, Science & Nature. And when they do "adult" - the rock biz/drugs-scarred Basement Song - it's not exactly Sister Morphine. Closing proceedings with 1998's If, an uncharacteristic tale about a pop performer who becomes trapped by the demands of his own audience, seems curiously significant. It is their best song all night, and in cynical times for pop, is admirably honest.
• At the Town and Country, Leeds (0113-280 0100), tonight, and the Civic, Wolverhampton (01902 552121), tomorrow.