All the fuss over the flamboyant androgyny of lead singer Boy George has obscured just how traditional a pop band Culture Club is. (Boy) George O'Dowd may wear braids, eyeliner and lipstick on the cover of Culture Club's first album, "Kissing to Be Clever," but on the record, he sings readily accessible songs of young, confused love in a high, breathy tenor that verges on alto.
His lush cushion of harmony vocals backed by a light, crisp dance beat recalls Brian Wilson, Smokey Robinson and Michael Jackson more than the robot singers of Britain's cooly detached synth-pop brigade.
This is especially obvious on "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" already a top-10 hit here after reaching No.1 in England. After a reverie of Beach Boys' "oohs" in the opening verse, O'Dowd asks the title question with aching intimacy over a percolating beat, much in the style of Michael Jackson's new album.
All the songs have a strong reggae influence thanks to Michael Craig's Caribbean base lines; the synthesizers of Roy Hay and Phil Pickett give everything a polished sheen. Yet these are just flavors added -- with admirable restraint -- to the basic pop- soul stew. The lyrics dispute any preconceptions of what a "white boy" should do -- sexually, socially or musically.
Though O'Dowd's bisexual makeup may seem like ultimate trendiness, Culture Club's music resists trendy concepts and opts for the unchanging heart of pop music: melody, hooks, danceable rhythms and emotional honesty.
On the other hand, the Spoons, another British quartet, have released a debut album, "Arias & Symphonies" that's all concept and no feeling. Embracing the rigid formulas of Britain's synth-pop movement, the Spoons offer nothing more than a mechanical thump, tuneless vocals and cloned, droning songs. This style may reflect the alienation of the modern, microchip age, but it only worsens that condition. ON RECORD, ON STAGE THE ALBUMS CULTURE CLUB -- Kissing To Be Clever(Epic/Virgin ARE 38398). THE SPOONS -- Arias & Symphonies(A&M SP- 4920). THE SHOW CULTURE CLUB & THE SPOONS -- at the Wax Museum, Sunday at 9.