Thursday, February 22, 2007

Music Review: Lily Allen, Alright, Still

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingOn the cover of her debut CD Alright, Still, Lily Allen perches on a pop-art bicycle in a carnival version of London. Her head is tilted and she looks on the verge of launching a slick, smooth putdown. It's the look of the smartest kid in the class who's decided to become a troublemaker.

Another one of those British mega-hit imports trying to make it big in the states, Lily Allen is far more Arctic Monkeys than Robbie Robertson. Her singles "Smile" and "LDN" were hits last year in the U.K., and now Alright, Still has gotten a U.S. release. A recent appearance on "Saturday Night Live" is boosting her American attack. Allen effortlessly combines a smart, cynical lyrical bent with chirpy, upbeat island-pop music. While she's only 21, there's a universal appeal to her tunes. MySpace launched her career – her demos posted on her home page drew attention that led to Alright, Still's release last summer overseas.

The disc's kickoff single, "Smile," sticks in your head with an insistent firmness. Its Jamaica-meets-No Doubt bounce belies some of the most cynical lyrics you'll hear in such a radio-friendly tune – "At first when I see you cry / it makes me smile / of course I feel bad for a while / but then I just smile." It's the ultimate kiss-off, in a sing-along, girl power anthem.

Allen's emotive soprano is the hook she uses to spin her sweet-sounding, bitter-aftertaste pop. "Knock 'Em Out" combines a dance hall piano lick with a snide, Cockney-rap delivery that evokes The Streets combined with Lady Sovereign as she dissects the singles scene. "LDN" rides along on a Bob Marley swinging beat as it looks at the highs and lows of life in London ("When you look with your eyes, everything seems nice / but if you look twice you can see it's all lies").

Of course, Allen is hardly the second coming of the Clash with her observations that England has a prim public face and a seamy underbelly, but her tunes still have a cutting wit. While Allen often gets biting, she's rarely raunchy – sure, "Nan You're A Window Shopper" is a slashing assault on old folks and their "leaky colostomy bags," while "Not Big" berates an ex-boyfriend for exactly what you'd think the title is referring to.

Allen's at her best when her dark wit is sharp – one of the disc's weaker tracks, the platitude-filled "Take What You Take," comes perilously close to sounding like the Spice Girls with a little profanity. Also, a bonus "alternate version" of "Smile" on this US release, done over with a sloppy trumpet and drum machine '80s Katrina and the Waves-style production, is bloody awful.

But heck, Lily Allen is young, after all, and that's a big element of her success here. Only someone who's 21 and infatuated with her own cleverness could produce a debut as brash, cocky and hummably fun as Alright, Still. It's pop with enough edge to appeal to balding hipsters even as their 14-year-old daughters sing along with it on their iPods.

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