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Poised to ride the wave

Give her considerable talent a little more polish and Kate Nash may just be the face of this year's British tide.

January 16, 2008|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

Since the big breakthroughs last year of Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse and M.I.A., the idea of the top new British female pop artist has started to seem something like a position to be filled on a regular basis, like the Rose queen or poet laureate.

With that class of 2007 now making its way in the big world, eyes are turning to new contenders. The one with the big head start is Kate Nash, a 20-year-old Londoner whose fledgling career got a boost last year from a MySpace recommendation by Allen, and who didn't mess up the opportunity. Her debut album, "Made of Bricks," went to the top of the UK sales chart.

It was released in the U.S. last week, and in her Los Angeles debut at the Troubadour on Monday, Nash showed the same strengths and weaknesses she does on the record: an innate vocal charm and some sharp attitude on the one hand, and a labored quality and derivative nature on the other.

Like Allen, she sports a "street accent" (one that detractors in England have mocked as artificial) and frequently lands sucker punches on the losers she gets tangled up with in her songs.

But unlike her ska-inflected booster and hip-hop's M.I.A., Nash isn't plugged into the vibrant sonic and rhythmic pulse of multicultural London. And where Winehouse picked classic soul music from the buffet of vintage sounds available for singers to adopt, Nash leans toward the classic coffeehouse minstrel.

Her quieter moments at the Troubadour, especially a couple of songs where she left her piano to play acoustic guitar, evoked Joni Mitchell confessionals. That influence persisted even when she beefed things up with Elton John-like pop and rock touches that saluted the Smiths and Elvis Costello.

Her hair was coiffed high, Marlo Thomas-style, but in contrast to Allen's playfully polished image, she came on as the girl poet next door, a down-to-earth confidant working out her issues -- mostly awkward infatuations or really nowhere relationships.

Artificial or not, her delivery created a genuine intimacy, and as a writer she often shows a flair for detail. The scene-setting in "Birds," where a couple skirts the fare gate at a train station, and the acid repartee between bickering lovers in "Foundations" are two examples of an observational gift akin to that of the Arctic Monkeys.

Nash is less assured and nervy than the Monkeys, though, and at the Troubadour she also indulged her fondness for raw, primal screaming, a vocal device that demands more judicious treatment. Her other vocal signature -- the ability to sing reallyreallyreallyfast, as on the "very, very, very, very" refrain of "Mariella" -- was also gimmicky, but in an entertaining way.

In other ways, though, she showed a welcome self-awareness. She skipped her two electro-pop songs, "Play" and her first success, "Caroline's a Victim," indicating that she recognizes their peripheral position in her work. She rings more true as earnest post-adolescent poet than stylized deadpan diva.

More imagination in the arrangements and better execution by Nash and her three-member band would have helped. During the ominous, finger-snap shuffle of "Dickhead," it was easy to imagine what harrowing revelations Costello's band the Attractions would have wrung from it back in the day.

Maybe it's not quite fair to compare a novice to one of the great ones, but remember: Elvis was just a few years older when he and his band delivered indelible performances of the similarly designed "Watching the Detectives."

The MySpace dynamic that has assisted Nash and so many others has democratized the music discovery process, no doubt, but Monday's show suggested that in so doing it might also be pushing young artists too far too soon.

Nash looks like someone who would profit from some intensive writing and performing away from the bright lights. She could be the top new British female arrival of a different year.

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