Johnny Borrell and Zazou review – Razorlight frontman bounces back to confound critics

Borrell's new group looks like an explosion in a fancy-dress shop and sounds like a Glastonbury circus field bar band – in a good way

Borrell-baiting season is officially open. Since the Razorlight frontman's debut solo album of raggle-taggle cabaret showtunes, ambitiously titled Borrell 1, stiffed outside the Top 100 last year, the critical vultures have descended to pick at the burst ego of the century's most righteously ridiculous rock star.

What they hadn't bargained for, though, is Johnny's undimmed dedication to his latest incarnation. And perhaps a little creative sleight-of-hand. Zazou seem purpose-built to absorb mockery. They have a name that Alan Partridge should be introducing as the backing band to Glenn Ponder. There's a flat-capped barrow boy on double bass, a cellist in an explorer's pith helmet, a lounge beatnik saxophonist and a 1940s spiv on bongos. Borrell himself sports the sort of unruly beard that relapsing movie stars wear in mugshots as he introduces, utterly straight-faced, songs called Cyrano Masochiste and Erotic Letter.

"There were some problems in your rock'n'roll career," he sings, self-knowingly. "They took your joke seriously, they laughed when you were sincere." He's referencing a flippant, decade-old comment he made that became the root of his troublesome rep – "compared to the Razorlight album, Dylan is making the chips. I'm drinking champagne" – and one he belatedly attempts to defuse with a cover of Dylan's Sunday-school reggae number Man Gave Names to All the Animals. Yet with Zazou he finally seems in on his own joke. It's as if they're a decoy, a sinkhole for all the scorn ahead of Razorlight's festival return this summer.

They're also thoroughly infectious fun. Lacing rootsy rhumbas, polkas, gypsy soul and flapper tunes with references to Yeats, Voltaire, Shakespeare and Hélène Cixous, particularly on tracks from the new Artificial Night EP, Borrell aims at intellectual burlesque and achieves something akin to a Glastonbury circus field bar band or a pre-war Parisian Dexys. Dotting the set with carnival takes on Razorlight's Vice and In the City converts the jeering beer boys to jigging believers and by the Stonesy finale Ladder to Your Bed a sneer-free party has broken out. If Johnny's going down, it's with pigeon chest bared for the sniper's lasers.


Mark Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

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