British pop singer Lily Allen was the official Internet music hype of 2006. Singles "LDN" and especially "Smile" were summer smashes across the Atlantic that became plenty prominent here as well, and this debut album circulated widely as an import. But Alright, Still ... makes its official U.S. debut this month.
The 21-year-old Allen's personality, smarts, and musicality evoke female American singer-songwriters such as Fiona Apple and Nellie McKay (like McKay, Allen seems to have equal love for hip-hop and show tunes), though she's less tormented than the former, less flighty than the latter. Grounded and sassy, Allen's persona is more around-the-way-girl, London edition, but there's a jazzy fluency to her singing that belies the attractive amateurism she cultivates.
Lyrically, she fits snugly within a recent outburst of British pop that includes artists such as the Streets, Dizzee Rascal, and the Arctic Monkeys: observant, richly detailed, and rooted in British youth culture. But the cheerfully dyspeptic tone Allen takes while negotiating a life plagued by bad credit and worse boyfriends is all her own.
The relationship songs on Alright, Still ... are subtly bilious. "Smile" sounds breezy, but when Allen gets to the chorus, the fangs pop through the smile: "At first when I see you cry/Yeah, it makes me smile ... At worst I feel bad for a while, but then I just smile/I go ahead and smile." And the content/tone contrast of "Smile" is matched directly by the societal observations of its sequel, "LDN," where Allen rides her bike through London, offering gentle, bemused commentary on the pimps, muggers, and crack whores she sees. (This is very Nellie McKay.)
But "Smile" has nothing on "Not Big," the most delicious impotence taunt delivered by a female musician since Elastica's "Stutter" more than a decade ago (and, to think of it, that Brit band are probably Allen's spiritual godmothers). "I'm gonna tell them that you're rubbish in bed now/And that you're small in the game," Allen warns an ex. On "Shame for You," she threatens an ex with physical violence (at the hands of her brothers; she's not getting her hands dirty).
Allen is equally rough on would-be paramours, mowing down a horny club creep on "Knock 'Em Out" in some saucy sing-speak delivery. "Nah, it's not gonna happen/Not in a milliiion yeeaarrs!" she ends one verse, with tossed-off exuberance.
You do get the sense that Allen could be hell to get along with -- her demands seem as big as her fuse is short. But what can be impossible in life can be entrancing on a record (see Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, and many, many others), especially since Alright, Still's musical acumen matches Allen's verbal/vocal command. The sampled New Orleans R&B piano and Crescent City polyrhythms (courtesy of Earl King's "Big Chief") on "Knock 'Em Out" are a knockout. But, like so many Brits, Allen's real musical love resides in Jamaica, as witnessed by the lilting ska of "LDN," the low-key skank of "Not Big," and brittle near-dub undercurrents of "Friend of Mine."
Alright, Still ... is also redeemed by the moments that soften Allen's persona. The album ends with two notes of sisterly concern, the first, "Friend of Mine," is a disappointed missive to a coke-snorting girlfriend. ("What happened to the good old days?/I was hoping this was just a stupid phase.") Even better is "Alfie," directed at a teenaged "baby" brother. Allen displays comic awareness of how uncomfortably the role of scold fits her by sarcastically playing older to open the song -- "Ohhh, oh deary me," she sings. Not that her ensuing advice is exactly schoolmarmish. She wants him to put down the weed and put up the video games so he can go out and get laid, and when he doesn't respond, she gets peeved: "Oh little brother please refrain from doing that/I'm trying to help you out, so can you stop being a twat?"
But the song that really rounds out the personality of the most engaging new pop artist to emerge in the past year or so is "Littlest Things," which presents a palpable but modest romantic side that informs the poison darts that surround it. "Littlest Things" is a lovely song of romantic memory and regret. "Sometimes I find myself sittin' back and reminiscing/Especially when I have to watch other people kissin', " Allen muses before rifling through memories of a good relationship before it went bad: "We'd spend the whole weekend lying in our own dirt/I was just so happy in your boxers and your T-shirt." -- Chris Herrington