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Riding the wake of the Web

Lily Allen will lead a new wave of British artists to the forbidding U.S. shores in coming months. But the reach of the Internet makes invasion a little easier.

January 07, 2007|Phil Sutcliffe | Special to The Times

London — OVER the past year, doom's trumpet has blown a few blasts in the general direction of the music industry. But in the U.K., music itself is feeling good and ready to show America a very good time indeed.

Of course, if you survey the U.S. album charts for 2006, consolation for Brits remains modest: a few unit-shifting classics such as the Beatles and Rod Stewart plus the handful of newcomers who've sold anywhere from the mid-700,000s (Corinne Bailey Rae, Snow Patrol) to more than 2 million (James Blunt). And Robbie Williams, our biggest domestic star of the Noughties, not even releasing his latest album, "Rudebox," in America ... let's not even think about it.

But look at the culture rather than the stats, and the U.K. is suddenly riding a wave. I'm calling it The Movement That Has No Name Because It's Not a Movement It Just Is. Which may not catch on.

However, Martin Talbot, editor of U.K. Billboard equivalent Music Week, offers some solid explanation for our optimism: "A greater wealth of new talent is coming through than for many years: Nine No. 1 debut albums in our chart and most of them by British artists. I don't think Beatlemania will happen again, but a lot of the new acts individually do have a shot at the mainstream in America in 2007."

Certainly, it's a key year for Lily Allen. She's the sassy standard-bearer for a new British songwriting generation who are continuing a witty, street-life tradition that goes back to the Kinks, Ian Dury, Squeeze, Morrissey, Pulp and on through their immediate precursor, Cockney rapper the Streets.

Prototypically, Allen didn't have a band or play live until her MySpace site attracted record label attention. But she did have a sharp instinct for the impact of sunny sounds wrapped around barbed lyrics; she tells pushy boys to get lost ("Are you stupid, or just a little slow?"), witnesses a mugging ("Hits her over the head, doesn't care if she's dead") and generally gives the Pollyanna airhead view of life short shrift ("Do I feel all right? No, not slightly").

Allen launches her full-on American campaign in January with the release of her first album, "Alright, Still." If it succeeds, it will boost her storytelling, musically varied contemporaries: the hip-hop-inflected Jamie T and Just Jack, the guitar bands Larrikin Love and the Holloways. A little further off-piste, but still connected, are the diverse extremes of Mr Hudson & the Library's eccentricity (for now, try MySpace) and the fierce London-life hip-hop of Klashnekoff (his first "official" album, "Lionheart: Tussle With the Beast," should be available as an import in the spring).

While concentrating on up-and-comers, it should be noted that the jostling crowd of verbally smart beat groups that followed Franz Ferdinand a year ago now plan to prove their mettle with strong second albums: so, go Kaiser Chiefs, Arctic Monkeys, Bloc Party and the Magic Numbers.

It may jar that British rock weekly NME should call reggae-fied hip-hop popster Allen "the archetypal singer-songwriter for the iPod generation." But it's true and only emphasizes the genre-breakdown thesis -- considering that, to Americans, Blunt must be the current face of British singer-songwriting. And there are several others on the soft-rock platinum trail, especially James Morrison and Paolo Nutini (their debuts out soon, after success back home). But then guitar band Snow Patrol probably is winning a piece of the same audience, as is Keane, nearly 300,000 U.S. sales into its second album campaign and sporting a best new artist Grammy nomination.

Yet British singer-songwriting also boasts a swath of tougher and more sophisticated artists who are still commercially inclined. David Ford, whose second album emerges next summer, digs down deep in the heart-and-soul tradition; Amy Winehouse delivers confessionals like spitting nails; and Jarvis Cocker -- formerly of Pulp -- takes a wider view of fashions, foibles and existential insights (check his upcoming solo album and his lyric writing for Charlotte Gainsbourg's "5:55," out in March).

Maybe KT Tunstall, already approaching the million sales mark in the U.S. with "Eye to the Telescope," makes sense of the whole delightfully messy U.K. thing. A straightforward writer, she draws her songs into the periphery of hip-hop when she plays live via improvisations on echo and loop pedals. On the other hand, her roots reach back to a contemporary Scottish folk scene called the Fence Collective.

And now British folk could be stepping out of the ghetto shadows as never before, its new standing symbolized by the Fence's focal figure, King Creosote. A writer and singer of charming love songs (although not a singer-songwriter, of course, he's a folkie), he recorded many albums in obscurity on indie labels until, pushing 40, he suddenly signed to Warner's 679 label.

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