In OurSpace At Last: Lily Allen's Twisted Pop
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 19, 2007
How strange that Lily Allen is just now washing ashore in the United States. The sassy British pop singer became an Internet sensation a year ago after posting some of her songs on MySpace. And critics became infatuated with Allen last summer, following the U.K. release of her irresistible debut album, "Alright, Still," in July. Did the keepers of her career think we wouldn't notice?
Still, it wasn't until last month that Allen's album was officially released stateside. And Friday night, the 21-year-old finally made her Washington debut with a perfectly likable performance at the sold-out 9:30 club.
Allen is sort of the English answer to Gwen Stefani, which somehow makes her an indie-hipster fave. (Must be the British part.) Her playful but caustic songs feature observational, teen-diary lyrics, and her music is a grab-bag blend of ska, hip-hop, dub reggae, R&B, electronica, bossa nova and even polka. It sounds much better than it reads: Allen's smart, cheeky singles, "LDN" and "Smile," were two of the brightest spots in 2006 pop music.
As delightful as she may be in recorded form, Allen isn't the most gifted of live performers. In fact, she appeared almost catatonic during a recent stint on "Saturday Night Live," turning in a spiritless set that inspired thoughts of a new T-shirt slogan: "You sound better on MySpace."
Allen was hardly an electrifying presence at the 9:30, either, but she mounted just enough of a charm offensive to connect with the audience of early adopters and newcomers.
She swore some, giggled plenty, declared herself to be drunk and complained that she was pooped, having just flown back from the Brit Awards. It's tiring being denied all those trophies, apparently: Allen was nominated for four awards at the music-biz bash -- including best British album and British breakthrough act -- but she left empty-handed. "It's nice to be appreciated in your own country," she said sarcastically. She hurled an expletive at her homeland. The crowd cheered. "I'm back in the U.S. and everything's good. At least someone likes me."
Allen then launched into "Shame for You," a song about a guy who says he likes her even though he's cheating on her.
Boys are a frequent subject in Allen's lyrics. She sings (and raps) about lame lovers, lame wannabe lovers, lame ex-lovers and lazy little brothers. Her voice is pleasant and sweet, her music generally cheery and buoyant. But there's a certain sardonicism to her tunes.
"At first when I see you cry / It makes me smile," she sang. "Yeah, it makes me smile."
Even London didn't get off easy, as "LDN's" frothy ska-pop sound belied Allen's observations about the underbelly of her home town. "When you look with your eyes / Everything seems nice," she sang. "But if you look twice, you can see it's all lies."
There was no spotlight following her moves, which was just as well: Wearing a sleeveless black A-line dress with white high tops, Allen spent most of the 16-song set marching back and forth across the stage, only occasionally stopping at some sort of drum machine to trigger various sound effects.
Backed by a taut seven-piece band -- all guys, each wearing an untucked Lacoste polo shirt -- Allen worked through "Alright, Still" in its entirety and added a few covers to push the brassy performance just past the hour mark. "I have a very short album," she explained, "so I have to fill out the set with other songs."
For a two-song, mid-set medley, she chose recent hits by Keane ("Everybody's Changing") and the Kooks ("Naive"), turning both rock songs into breezy, island-style numbers complete with . . . maracas. The songs sounded loungy and toothless, like something you might hear on a Royal Caribbean cruise through the Bahamas. Better was an encore cover of "Blank Expression," a 1979 song by the celebrated ska band the Specials. It played to Allen's musical strengths, though they were also a weakness: There was a sameness to the set, with many of the songs riding similar ska and dub-reggae grooves.
Still, Allen is a compelling young talent who's clearly worth watching. Especially now that she's finally, officially arrived here. "Alright, Still" is in Billboard's domestic Top 20, and Allen has been granted MTV's seal of approval: Her U.S. tour is being presented by the network's "Discover and Download" program. Can a Grammy nomination for best new artist be far behind -- two years after the fact?
Britain's Lily Allen Brings Her 'Smile' to This Shore
By Kevin O'Donnell
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
In the music video for Lily Allen's song "LDN," the 21-year-old British singer is shopping for something very specific in a record store. She asks the clerks if they have anything that combines punk, electronica, grime, dub, soul, early hip-hop and drum 'n' bass. They look at her as though she's crazy. Clearly, it doesn't exist. So with her debut record, Allen has attempted to will that sound into existence.
Buzz around Allen started a year ago, when songs posted on her MySpace page started nabbing thousands of plays. She has since become a celebrated pop star offline in her homeland, with a platinum debut record, "Alright, Still," that is just now being released stateside.
Allen's first hit single, "Smile," is a bubbly, mid-tempo tune with a barroom piano lick, subdued horns and a reggae beat. Allen, however, is in a vengeful mood -- she's just broken up with her cheating boyfriend, who's now begging for forgiveness. "At worst / I feel bad for a while," she sings in a light falsetto. "But then I just smile / I go ahead and smile."
These contrasts between peppy melodies and brassy lyrics are at the heart of Allen's music. The jubilant mix of electro-beats and breezy calypso on "LDN" recalls Harry Belafonte's 1956 hit "Banana Boat Song (Day-O)." But as Allen closely observes her home town ("LDN" is text-message shorthand for London), she notices the seedier side of metro life, from an abusive pimp to a boy who mugs an old lady of her jewelry and wallet. Nevertheless, Allen remains smitten: "Sun is in the sky / Oh why / Oh why / Would I wanna be anywhere else?"
Allen writes like a teenage diarist; she's wordy, egocentric and all over the place emotionally. That personality is best captured on "Everything's Just Wonderful," where she bemoans not being able to afford a flat and wanting to eat spaghetti "for days and days and days." Combined with rich production values, a Muzak-inspired sample and Allen's multi-tracked vocals, it's the best cut on the record.
Though she's a star in the United Kingdom, it's difficult imagining "High School Musical"-loving tween girls warming up to Allen's tunes about crack whores, pot-smoking brothers and declarations that size does matter. But a few tracks do have an American radio-ready quality to them. "Take What You Take" could be a power-pop hit courtesy of Avril Lavigne's hitmakers The Matrix. (Only it sounds deflated.) And "Nan You're a Window Shopper," a track included only on the U.S. release, strives for Fergie's disco-rap but falls flat on its lovely lady bum.
Always dressed in big skirts and high-top sneakers, Allen comes off as a quirky almost-woman who has yet to outgrow adolescence. But that's what makes her persona so refreshing when compared with the hyper-sexuality of such pop stars as Jessica Simpson, Beyonce or Ciara. If "Alright, Still" turns out only to be a cult success here, give Lily Allen some time. She's worth rooting for.
Lily Allen: First the Web . . . Now the World
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 16, 2007
This is how you know you're hot: Numerous American critics put you on their 2006 year-end best-of lists even though your album doesn't come out until Jan. 30, 2007.
Which is what happened to 21-year-old British singer Lily Allen, whose "Alright, Still" arrived here six months after its release at home. Apparently, nobody wanted to miss this elevator while it was still on the ground floor. Blender magazine pre-canonized Allen as "The Number One Reason to Love '07," while GQ crowned her "the first lady of MySpace."
The latter is a big part of the story. Allen set up her own MySpace page in late 2005, while the label she'd signed with was still trying to figure out what to do with her. She posted demos of her own songs, fans responded and escalating viral buzz turned Allen into the "it" girl for social networking alterna-systems, evidenced by millions of downloads and her 135,000-and-counting MySpace cyber friends.
Allen is not the first Internet-fueled pop phenom (fellow countrymen Arctic Monkeys traveled that road last year) and she won't be the last, but such broadband-speed success stories are still rare. Like Arctic Monkeys, Allen is a streetwise songwriter, able to capture the vagaries of youthful romance and daily life in smartly observed reggae- and ska-infused pop songs that tend to be bright on the surface but decidedly darker at their center.
That's especially true of Allen's breakthrough single, "Smile," built on a sunny sample from the Soul Brothers' '60s classic "Free Soul" that masks the venom of lyrics evoking a cheated-on girl's joy at the misery she visits on her former boyfriend. The Sophie Muller-directed video documents Allen's revenge: She hires thugs to beat up her DJ-ex, then trash his apartment and scratch his vinyl records while she's consoling him in a coffee shop -- where she puts laxative in his coffee!
"At first when I see you cry / It makes me smile / Yeah, it makes me smile / At worst I feel bad for a while / But then I just smile / I go ahead and smile."
(Allen's inspiration, DJ Lester Lloyd, may have gotten the last laugh when the single hit No. 1, selling the story of their romance to the British tabloids -- sample headline, "We Were Off Our Heads on E . . . The Sex Was Out of This World" -- for about the same amount of money Allen got as an album advance.)
Though MTV originally passed on the "Smile" video (because of the mugging scene), the network is now on the Allen bandwagon. Last month, MTV and mtvU were flogging a series of 30-second video vignettes in which Allen mused about men, fashion and the joys of the Internet. She's headlining the inaugural MTV Discover and Download Live tour that comes to the 9:30 club Friday.
"Smile" is not the only pistol in Allen's bandoleer. "Not Big" belittles another unnamed ex who can't deliver in bed. "Knock 'Em Out" serves up a catalogue of pithy ripostes against unwanted attention from clueless men. Even the album's one fairly traditional love song, "Littlest Things," is sung over the piano break from a theme to the soft-core "Emmanuelle" films.
The album is Girl Power 2.0 -- one fan called it "Corinne Bailey Rae on crack" -- though Allen suggests it's at least partly a facade.
"I think I'm quite a self-conscious person and lack self-esteem in a lot of ways," Allen explained recently from New York, where she was preparing for an appearance on "Saturday Night Live," "so my way of dealing with that is to be quite sharp and pretend to people that I'm really confident and can handle myself. I think that's deflected a lot of attention from the real me, and I think that really comes across in my music. But people that are music lovers can dissect that, and that's what they like about it."
A couple of years ago, no one would have cared. Few people had even heard about Allen, whose only connection to the Internet was as an occasional user.
"I don't even know how long the Internet's been around, but for me it only started becoming a part of everyday life in the past four or five years," she says. "I was just using it to find routes out to the countryside to the grandparents' house and to pay my congestion charge [sort of a zoned parking fee in London]."
As the British tabloids and music media have enjoyed trumpeting, Allen was a handful growing up in West London, one of three children of comedian-actor Keith Allen and Alison Owen, who started out as a film production assistant and is now an Oscar-nominated film producer (for "Elizabeth," not "Shaun of the Dead"). Her parents separated when Lily was 4, and she grew up with, and still lives with, her mother. She attended more than a dozen schools, most quite exclusive and several of which she was expelled from.
Back in 2002, Allen had a record deal that fizzled before she even got to the recording studio, so she went to school to become a florist and actually was one briefly before realizing it was easier to go to bed at 4 a.m. than to get up at that hour to go to work. Allen's fortunes finally turned when she hooked up with production team Future Cut (Darren Lewis and Tunde Babalola), which had made a name for itself in drum 'n' bass in the late '90s. The team did the beats, Allen the lyrics and melodies, building on the reggae/punk/ska/pop/calypso neighborhood sound she'd grown up with. Allen calls the album "an updated version of that to make it a little more relevant to our times."
Their first song: "Smile." Another early track, "LDN" (text-message shorthand for London), used a sunny calypso-tinged melody to underscore Allen's ambivalence about her home town. "Sun is in the sky / oh, why, oh, why would I want to be anywhere else," she sings. "Everything seems nice / But if you look twice / You can see it's all lies." The video offers scenarios with Magritte-like dualities as shadows fall, as when a young man helping an old woman with her shopping bags ends up mugging her.
In September 2005, Allen signed with Regal based on her collaborations with Future Cut, though the label wanted her to work with more established writers and producers. Instead, Allen uploaded her songs on MySpace that November, also keeping an online diary and assiduously blogging about sex, drugs, fellow musicians and celebrities. People discovering her profile e-mailed tracks to friends who in turn passed them on, with various online music media outlets linking up along the way. By last April, the previously unknown Allen had 40,000 cyber pals, a million downloads and the begrudging okay from her label to do it her way. NME had dubbed her "the archetypal singer-songwriter for the iPod generation."
"It was totally unintentional the way that things happened with MySpace," Allen says. "I actually first set it up as a personal MySpace. After a few days of navigating the site, I realized you could have music, so I canceled my personal account and started a new account, and it just kind of happened.
"It wasn't like the record company didn't like my music, or they would never have signed me in the first place," she says. "But I don't think they thought [the music] was there yet, and MySpace just gave them more confidence. People at record companies are under so much pressure to perform these days that they try to over-think things a little. MySpace was a bit of relief for all of us, 'cause I was happy with what I was doing and I couldn't understand why everyone else didn't think it was there."
With the album slated for release in England in July, Allen played her first live date in May at a small London club, YoYo. "We had an ad on MySpace, and 1,000 people showed up at a 200-seat club -- it was definitely quite a special way of doing it," she says. "And people knew all the lyrics before that!"
"The reason I hadn't performed live before was because I was really, really scared of doing it and I didn't know that I could do it," she adds. "When I finally did it, the feeling was so great, and I found that I could do it quite well, and I just wanted to do it again. Now I love it; it's the favorite bit for me now."
When "Alright, Still" (Brit-youth slang for "cool") came out, it quickly went to No. 2. And there were some "special guests," including Greg Kurstin, Gwen Stefani's live musical director, who co-wrote three songs, including "Everything's Just Wonderful," a critique of the media's obsession with body image. That leads to some charming rhymes, from the pithy "In the magazines they talk about weight loss / If I buy those jeans I can look like Kate Moss," to the poignant "I want to be able to eat spaghetti Bolognese / And not feel bad about it for days and days and days."
Allen is hardly fat, but neither is she rail thin, and she clearly enjoys her left-field "look," an exuberant meld of '60s hairdo, neon eye shadow, oversize costume jewelry and colorful ball gowns and cocktail dresses atop Nike trainers.
"I've always been a fashion icon in my head," Allen laughs before adding, more seriously: "I think that good things can come out of all this stuff I'm doing. Not that I want to be like a preacher or anything, but I feel happy, and I feel proud of myself, that I haven't been bullied into a situation by my record company, or by anyone, to go to the gym or get a boob job or use music dancers in my videos. I'm proud that I've managed to make a type of music that allows me to just be a musician and say what it is I want to say and not have to rely on anything else, and hopefully that can inspire young people."