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RECORD RACK

New releases from Lily Allen, Nels Cline and Miranda Lee Richards

February 11, 2009|Margaret Wappler; August Brown; Chris Barton

Lily Allen

"It's Not Me, It's You"

Capitol

***

Saucer-eyed provocateur Lily Allen had to impress with her follow-up to "Alright, Still," the 2006 record launched by a few charming, if slight, MySpace demos. Producer Mark Ronson gave her debut its bouncy retro-meets-reggae identity, but she did well to return to producer Greg Kurstin, whose resourceful fingerprints are all over "It's Not Me, It's You," Allen's full-blown entree into character-driven pop.

Maybe more than any other pop star at the moment, Allen reveals her personality, or at least her cheeky confection. She's mischievous, sweet as powdered sugar, backstabbing at her worst and absolutely irrepressible. Her gift for satire -- which roams from boudoir to parties to politics, with mixed results -- is encapsulated on "The Fear," a poison arrow aimed at celebrity. It extends to herself in "Him," a rumination on God, in which she pokes a needle into her too-precious concept with knowingly ridiculous lines such as "I don't imagine he's ever been suicidal / His favorite band is Creedence Clearwater Revival." In "Never Gonna Happen," she berates a clingy boy while dragging him into the sack.

Kurstin, who wrote the album with Allen, knows how to play to his heroine's strengths with deft touches. Vaudeville, show-tune theatrics, lonely dance-floor pop and even a smidge of cartoon country give "It's Not Me, It's You" its clever foundation that references pop culture with the same insatiability as Allen's lyrics.

Allen will always be revered by some and reviled by others for her acidic wit that sometimes skims over herself. She's flawed, sometimes hypocritical. She doesn't look too deeply, and let's hope she never does -- or else it'll be no fun at all.

- Margaret Wappler

Perhaps a little too laid-back

Miranda Lee Richards

Light Of X

Nettwerk

** 1/2

The difference between regular ol' country music and the California variety is the difference between life as it is and what it could be. The Nashville industrial complex makes a fetish out of shoehorning everyday images into grand song structures. L.A.'s ladies of the canyons, such as Joni Mitchell and Miranda Lee Richards, see it differently. They've long traded some of the pop immediacy on the back end for a woozy, magic-hour daze that in the right hands can be just as vital.

Richards often errs on the side of wispy and ephemeral on her new album, "Light of X," but albums can do worse things than wash over you like a hillside sunset. "Early November" and "Mirror at the End" add some creepy, minor-key minimalism to the atmosphere, while "Lifeboat" is so intimately recorded you can hear individual brush hairs scraping the snare drum.

Richards' workably lilting alto would do well to be challenged by some more ambitious or revealing material in the future. But as Nashville reminds us, real life has enough strain. These days, taking it easy is a worthy fantasy in itself.

- August Brown

Scaling back the guitar weirdness

Nels Cline

"Coward"

Cryptogramophone

*** 1/2

Nels Cline has been sounding like multiple guitarists in concert for so many years that giving him a solo album with studio overdubs is almost unfair.

Yet the local favorite who rose from the improvised and experimental music incubators of the Smell and the now-shuttered Rocco to the amphitheater circuit with Wilco did not take this break from his day job to embark on another cathartic trip through a free-jazz electrical storm. In a bit of a surprise, much of "Coward" offers little of the fire-breathing noise workouts from Cline's past and instead plays like an elegantly crafted valentine to the acoustic guitar. At over 18 minutes, the album's swirling centerpiece, "Rod Poole's Gradual Ascent to Heaven" (inspired by the slain L.A. guitarist), casts a hypnotic spell while recalling the raga excursions of Robbie Basho, and "The Nomad's Home" flirts with the back-porch slide-work of Leo Kottke.

But Cline hasn't left all of his plugged-in tricks behind. The aptly named "Thurston County" mixes a Sonic Youth-ian churn with squiggling electronics and a weepy pedal steel. Elsewhere Cline's taste for stylistic mash-ups reaches its peak with the six-part "Onan Suite," where the shape-shifting guitarist seamlessly moves from the hallucinatory atmospherics of "Amniotica" to the guttural fuzz-funk of "Seedcaster" to the twitchy indie-rock drive of "The Liberator" with a host of unclassifiable detours in between. Cline's outside-leaning tendencies may have intimidated some music fans, but with this challenging yet often beautiful record, they have nothing to fear.

- Chris Barton

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