With her exaggerated Cockney accent, affinity for hip-hop and reggae and songs of disaffected British youth, London warbler Lily Allen is often compared to the Streets. Her Los Angeles debut showed the 21-year-old Allen is closer to a 21st-century version of Lesley Gore, Lulu and ’60s girl groups such as the Shangri-las: white girls who use black music styles.
The styles may be different, and it’s doubtful that any ’60s group could have gotten away with lyrics like “You must be joking me/if you think that you’ll be poking me” or kissing off an ex with disparaging comments about his endowment, but they share a world filled with two-timing boys, flirtatious girls and fascination with life on the wrong side of the tracks.
In her black, pleated cocktail dress, hoop earrings and upswept hair, Allen looked like a member of Goldie and the Gingerbreads. But instead of the tough-talking, no-nonsense singer heard on her refreshing album “Alright, Still” (Regal/Capitol, scheduled for a January release), she came off as a sweet, if very nervous young woman, a little stiff (the only time she really moved onstage was a short shimmy at the start of “Shame on You”), more than a little unsure of herself, and often left giggling at her own jokes.
It’s almost the opposite of the balancing act that raises the album above mere glossy pop. The grooves may sound kittenish, but Allen cuts through them with a catty wit. “Smile,” a No. 1 single in Britain, wraps her gleeful fantasy of romantic revenge in a dreamy, love drunk sample of Jamaican organ legend Jackie Mittoo; on “Knock ‘Em Out” she fends off unwanted suitors to a boisterous New Orleans piano; and the gritty city scenes of “LDN” (text-messaging shorthand for London) play out against a sprightly calypso sample.
Perhaps a live band could have helped Allen over the rough spots, but most of the music heard was prerecorded. The addition of a bassist, three-piece horn section and the occasional live keyboard did nothing to alleviate the sense that Allen might not be ready to perform live. At this stage in her career, Allen, who initially came to fame through the Internet, may just be a performer best experienced virtually.