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April 11, 2007
Lily Allen doesn’t make club music. And she definitely doesn’t make the sort of music that works in clubs where people are all jammed in, trying to get a glimpse of some Next Big Thing. Last night’s Irving Plaza (or Fillmore, whatever) show was Allen’s third New York show. Most critics had already seen her, and so they stayed away, but a full third of the crowd still had those VIP stickers on; the entire bigass upstairs balcony was now labeled a VIP section. As her blog-hype buzz trickles down, most of the crowd seems to consist of bored yuppies with leather jackets who chatter obliviously all through her performance and eyefuck me for being tall even when I’m standing in the back, definitely one of the least tolerable crowds I’ve yet experienced. An artist like Allen, one who’s generated a whole lot of excitement and made a lot of people curious, needs to be able to step on a stage in front of these people and get on some real Klaxons-esque zeitgeist shit, personifying and justifying all that excitement, and that’s not the kind of artist that Lily Allen is. She doesn’t make jarring, immediate music; she makes wispy, frothy barbecue music, lazy sunbaked loping ska-pop that derives its charm from its casual ease and from Allen’s own likable forthrightness. It’s summer-afternoon walk-in-the-park music, not packed-nightclub music, even if she herself is a club-friendly demi-celebrity. Last night, she walked onstage after a really shitty 80s-pop DJ with no sense of flow (turns out it was Aaron LaCrate; good to know firsthand and conclusively that that guy sucks) smashed a bunch of high-impact dance-tracks together, and it’s a bit ridiculous to expect Allen to do anything with that sort of hackneyed party-up intensity, even if that’s what last night’s show set her up to do.
Still and all, she’s pretty good onstage, more comfortable and natural and charismatic than alarmist early reports threatened. When she made her NY debut last fall, she’d probably only done a handful of live shows, but she’s been touring for a while now, and she’s figuring out how to hold a stage. She’s only got one album, and it’s like forty minutes long, but she knows how to stretch that out into an hour-plus-encores show: doing three covers and two non-album tracks, letting all the guys in her horn section play solos, drunkenly rambling between songs. Not all of that patter worked; when she said that she didn’t understand who put the men in cheap suits in Washington in charge and accused them of melting the planet, it amounted to some of the least trenchant political commentary I’ve heard in a minute. More often, though, her onstage presence wasn’t far from her on-record persona; at times, she was quite funny. Reacting with charming disbelief to a crying fan in the front row: “Crazy crying fan! Love that! Everybody cry!” Introducing her acoustic Kooks cover: “It’s actually quite rubbish, but I make it sound quite good.” She made it sound OK. Allen’s songs only have a few occasional big notes, and last night they sounded nasal and tinny, something she attributed to her voice being completely fucked from the previous weeks of touring. But, as American Idol judges might say, they aren’t singers’ songs, and she sold her great observational lyrics with conversational ease. She doesn’t exactly need to invest a whole lot of emotional energy into these songs, since they were never all that emotionally involved to begin with. That’s not how they work.
Probably the dumbest mini-controversy about Allen is that she’s a quote-unquote Mockney, an upper-class Brit who self-consciously adjusts her accent to sound like an Oliver Twist orphan or whatever. That’s exactly the sort of thing that only British people care about, and I’m guessing most of them don’t really give much of a fuck either. But her recording career thus far has been an interesting experiment in what happens when you put privileged kids onstage. Allen, as I wrote last year and as everyone who reads music blogs already knows, is the daughter of some famous British comedian I’ve never heard of. She doesn’t need pop stardom. It’s not an escape from grim economic realities or a fulfillment of long-held fantasies; it’s more of a hobby. Last night, she didn’t hide behind her mic stand the way she did on Top of the Pops last year, but there’s more than a twinge of irony in her galumphing stage-moves. (My brother Jim: “She dances like Karl Rove.”) There was some sort of baby synthesizer at the center of the stage, and she’d sometimes walk over and idly peck buttons on it. She sang Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” as something approaching a polka. The whole experience seems to be something of a goof to her, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Not every pop song, after all, has to be a three-minute emotional apocalypse, and we need songs about text-messages and asshole bouncers just as much as we need songs about heartbreak. The one Alright, Still track Allen didn’t play last night was “Take What You Take,” a big Natasha Bedingfield-esque stomper she’s already admitted to hating. From where I’m sitting, it’s one of her best songs, but I can see why she’d be embarrassed by its you-can-be-anything bluster. She doesn’t know whether you can be anything, and she doesn’t particularly care, which is sort of refreshing.
Voice review: Frank Kogan on Lily Allen’s “LDN”