Lily Allen is Hater-Proof

woody.jpgThis is what Google Image Search gives me. Fucking useless.

Assateague Island is a thin strip of sand on Maryland's Eastern Shore; it separates the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic Ocean, and it's pretty much nothing but beach. There's no dirt and barely any plant life besides some scrubby trees, but for some reason the island has a huge and famous population of wild ponies who walk up and down the beach and strike dramatic poses against the skyline; there's also a bunch of weird, skittish little deer and some truly nasty mosquitoes. As long as you reserve a site a couple of months in advance, you can camp there for five bucks a night per person. You can lie around in the sun all day and go swimming in the ocean whenever it gets too hot, and then you can build bonfires on the beach at night. It's probably not legal to sit around drinking around the fire all night, but the park rangers don't bother you as long as your fire is close enough to the water and everyone is 21. A bunch of my friends from Baltimore have a mini-tradition where we all get together and spend one weekend a year camping on the beach out there, which is why I didn't go see Slayer and Mastodon last Friday. Every year, I stress out about going because I've always got a ton of shit going on, but every time we go it ends up being a totally relaxing and rejuvenating experience, exactly the sort of stuff everyone needs to be doing when summer comes along. I didn't bring my iPod to the beach because I didn't want to get sand in it (sand gets fucking everywhere), but if I'd brought it I would've been bumping Lily Allen nonstop.

It's a couple of months late to be writing this post, since Lily Allen's blog-hype has been in overdrive long enough that the backlash has already kicked in. She's managed to become an mp3-blog overnight celebrity despite the fact that she doesn't sing in the Modest Mouse scratch-whine voice, an achievement in itself. If you read music blogs, which clearly you do, you already know all the relevant biographical info, but here it is again: she's 21, she's from London, she's approachably pretty, she's the daughter of some famous British comedian I never heard of. She got famous off of a MySpace page, and it's pretty amazing to me that people can look at that site's ugly-ass layout long enough to make anyone famous. When she first got online attention, it was because of "Nan You're a Window Shopper" a song that turns 50 Cent's "Window Shopper" into a lite-reggae lope and gets on some Weird Al shit, perfectly imitating 50's mushmouth singsong so Allen can talk shit about her grandmother. She's already been on Top of the Pops, standing motionless behind the mic and looking kind of nervous. She's made a mixtape that you have to download to hear, and I haven't done it because it feels really lame to download mixtapes. She's got an album coming out next month, at least in England; I don't think she has an American label yet. She might get famous in America or she might not, and it's not really worth wasting all your mental energy trying to figure out whether it'll happen unless you're a label person or a publicist. She will invariably get a song placed in a car commercial.

And here's something else: she's great. The album, Alright, Still, sounds absolutely perfect on an oppressively hot day. Allen fits perfectly with this weird new wave we seem to be seeing of British songwriters who don't sing so much as talk, who traffic exclusively in detail minded day-to-day shit, songs about text-messages and smoking too much weed. The Streets and the Arctic Monkeys are the obvious touchstones here, and Allen fits in with them perfectly even before you start talking about MySpace (please God don't start talking about MySpace). Nick Sylvester totally hates her; he used the term bitchpop on the phone last week. It's true: four of the eleven songs on Alright, Still are mean little kiss-off breakup songs, another is about blowing dudes off at the club, and still another is about fighting girls at the club. But Allen happens to be absolutely great at kiss-off breakup songs, cooing sweetly in multitracked harmony with herself while she deadpans threats: "You ask if we can still be lovers / I'll have to introduce my brothers." And besides, anyone willing to give Cam'ron a pass doesn't have a leg to stand on when it comes to dismissing songwriters for coming off like assholes. When Allen gets tender, she can be almost shockingly evocative. On the ballad "Littlest Things," she mumbles memories to herself over tinkling pianos and pillowy drums: "We'd spend the whole weekend lying in our own dirt / I was just so happy in your boxers and your T-shirt." Most of the time, though, she's all tough-chick snap. The big single is "LDN," where she rides around London on her bike and tosses off a gorgeously sun-baked hook about how things that look nice actually aren't and the kid going to help the old lady with her groceries is actually mugging her. It's not a revolutionary conceit or anything, but she makes an amazing song out of it, and that's all anyone can ask.

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All that persona stuff takes a backseat to her music, which is what really makes Alright, Still the best summer album I've heard yet this year. The Streets and the Arctic Monkeys mostly rely on monochromatic clatter, using background noise to draw attention to their rants. Allen's voice is a whole hell of a lot more pleasant; her breezy coo has a little bit of Neneh Cherry's tough confidence, and I'm always happy to hear that. And I don't know who produced the album, but credit is due. There's a lot of ska on Alright, Still, but it's not the herky-jerk polka-horn nonsense that's become hipster poison in America. For whatever reason, the British are a lot more patient with this stuff, letting the beats stretch and lope and breathe, filling up space with ghostly organ or delirious calypso horns. That's what made the Specials the best ska band ever (including the Jamaican ones), and it's what kept Mike Skinner from getting laughed out of the room when he did "Let's Push Things Forward." But Allen has other things going on, too: James Bond horn-stabs, lounge-jazz pianos, slick uber-pop production-sheen. This St. Etienne stuff can get a bit out of hand; the goofy music-hall oompah-tuba shit on "Alfie" makes for the album's only real weak moment. More often, though, we end up with something like "Take What You Want," a song that turns its glistening Afropop guitars and chunky big-beat drums into towering anthemo-pop, Natasha Bedingfield except with cussing. The mp3-blog world churns out wack shit at a furious pace, and it's getting worse than circa-2003 NME with all the next-big-thing talk, but they've struck gold with this one. The machine exists to turn people like Allen into titanic stars; I hope it does its job right.

Voice review: Frank Kogan on Lily Allen's "LDN"


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