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No missing fans for futurist M.I.A.

The Sri Lankan singer's sold-out performance here is prelude to her percussive, songful second album, 'Kala.'

August 01, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

The pop underground's futurist queen alighted at the EchoPlex Monday, wearing mirrored shades, glittery shorts and a military hat adorned with a pink flower. Shaking her body like a disco diva, tossing off jokes and streetwise diatribes like an old-school rapper and quoting the Pixies like a college rocker, Mya Arulpragasam -- better known as M.I.A. -- pointed the way toward a time when categories will have melted along with the ice caps and revelation will come only to the multilingual.

M.I.A., a Sri Lankan Londoner now based in Brooklyn, N.Y., made her forthcoming second album, "Kala," all over the world, partly because visa problems stopped her from settling into her Brooklyn digs. Those bureaucratic tangles also waylaid some recent performances; this was only her second stop on what will eventually transform into a world tour. (She had another show scheduled for Tuesday at the same club.)

The throng outside this basement annex of Sunset Boulevard's Echo club -- nearly a thousand hopefuls weren't admitted, DJ Dark Alley said during his warm-up set -- proved that the deafening buzz surrounding M.I.A.'s 2005 debut, "Arular," wasn't a fluke. Though different enough from the mainstream to get tagged as a novelty, M.I.A.'s way of blending expatriate sounds while leaving every ragged edge exposed made for a startlingly relevant representation of a culture that connects the airport runway to the mini-mall.

"Kala," which hits U.S. retail outlets Aug. 21, ranges even wider. The songs M.I.A. performed from it Monday were more songful than earlier efforts; one, "Jimmy," reworked a Bollywood-born disco hit, while another, "Paper Planes," seemed to pay tribute to M.I.A.'s kindred spirit Missy Elliott.

Her more melodic experiments haven't compromised the percussive center of M.I.A.'s music.

"I need people who know how to dance to this beat," she said, inviting a few fans onstage before performing the recent "Bird Flu." The hoofers were cheerful, but they looked more like electrocution victims than artistes as they tried to ride the song's fragmented, multilayered rhythm.

Throughout the concise set overseen by Hollatronix DJ Low Budget, M.I.A. took advantage of the lessons she's learned from touring, including a stint with Gwen Stefani. The beginner who once focused more on clumsy footwork than musical output was cocky and compelling, serenely working the audience and hitting all the cues of her complex sound. Showing off some unison footwork with her hip-hop "second," the singer and rapper Cherry, or gracefully falling into her fans' arms for a moment of crowd-surfing, M.I.A. was exactly what brainy types want in a pop star.

Whether she is what ordinary American listeners want remains uncertain. "Arular" sold about 130,000 copies in the U.S., making M.I.A. more influential than popular. It would be exciting to hear her cacophonous global dreamscapes blasting forth from all the corners they portray so well.

At the EchoPlex, though, M.I.A. was quite at home commanding her faction of loyalists, who in turn were thrilled to chase her beats.

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