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Brits accent quirky, diverse new voices

December 30, 2007|Phil Sutcliffe | Special to The Times

LONDON — "I've sat in bars with friends from British bands who had Manchester or Scottish or Welsh accents and gone, 'What did you say?' . . . Couldn't understand at all," muses Marty Diamond, New York-based head of East Coast Music for the Paradigm Agency and booker of British artists including the Verve, Snow Patrol, the Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen.

Well, if he couldn't understand what we were talking about, no wonder that, during the turn-of-the-millennium years, American fans generally seemed baffled by new British artists -- ergo, not interested.

It is true that, from the mid-'90s, the majority of young U.K. artists stopped copying the diction of their American idols -- as had largely been the convention since the Beatles -- and started singing as they spoke. It's impossible to tell what effect this accent problem may have had, but now, it seems, America is finally getting used to it.

So among current British successes are the ever-so-London Allen (Grammy nominated for alternative album), the utterly Sheffield Arctic Monkeys (No. 7 album a new high for them on the U.S. charts), the decidedly Scottish KT Tunstall (two hit albums) and Franz Ferdinand (commercially fine, critically fabulous), and the wonderfully mixed Corinne Bailey Rae, whose double-platinum debut sports a modern black British accent combining her Leeds birthplace and her father's Caribbean origins.

OK, the stirring vocals of Cockney Amy Winehouse (nominated for six Grammys) and rural Devonian Joss Stone (third album debuted at No. 2) are delivered with mid-Atlantic drawls -- and, for them, it works well. But, broadly, the new unwritten manifesto says sing who you are, write who you are, play who you are, then a strong identity will come through -- part individual, part local, part national -- and your essential honesty will be understood.

Diamond sees the benefit in his charges: "The personalities are coming through -- British artists like Lily or Alex Kapranos from Franz Ferdinand present themselves well, so they've become media icons and more doors open. Fashion journalists, for instance, are interested in all of them."

Interestingly, perhaps, women have achieved the biggest recent hits by new Brits in America: Bailey Rae, Winehouse, Tunstall, Stone and Allen. Is that significant?

Diamond dismisses the notion as a distraction from artistic matters: "It's a coincidence. First and foremost they're putting out inventive music. I mean, these really aren't stereotypical singer-songwriter girls."

Musically, the intertwining pop-rock-dance scene at the rave and club level in the U.K. probably helped develop artists of character -- in chart terms it progressed from Beth Orton combining folk compositions with beats to Dido and Craig David working a little light hip-hop into pop songs to the sophisticated yet very Anglo approach of Londoner Mark Ronson, who has three Grammy nominations for productions that contributed to Winehouse and Allen's U.S. breakthroughs.

The final ingredient in this brighter time for Brits in America -- compared with the glum late '90s -- is the Internet. Although it makes a mess of corporate cash flow, it's great for the little-guy musician on a different continent.

"Most of the Brits I work with now know the traditional single-album-tour cycle makes them beholden to the business and they don't want that, they want to impact the business," Diamond says. "You can affect things through the ether, contact your fans earlier and involve them. Franz Ferdinand played some new songs [for the album recorded in January] on a small-town Scottish tour last fall and now, through You Tube, their fans in, say, St. Louis know that stuff. Play one hot, sweaty little gig and it can speak globally. Awesome!

"If smart artists, managers, agents and record labels come up with inventive new ideas, the Internet can at least create awareness for new British artists across America."

Still, the new year begins with some uncertainties for substantial U.K. names. Will Radiohead find its pay-what-you-like "In Rainbows" album downloads have killed the market for CDs when it appears in stores Wednesday? . Will the "troubled" Amy Winehouse confirm her first extensive U.S. tour, penciled in for February through April? Will the only British major record company, EMI (Capitol in America), survive the Internet era and new ownership by Terra Firma, a company with no experience in the music business? And will Billy Bragg, Britain's favorite lefty troubadour, have a pre-election seismic influence on the presidential swingometer with his July tour?

How about yes, no, no, no . . . sadly in all cases?

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