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Summer Songs, Blues Hollers and Genre Actions

Lily Allen British buzz acts Maya Arulpragasam (a.k.a. M.I.A.) and Mike Skinner (a.k.a. The Streets) may resonate with hipsters, but they don’t translate well into American English. Skinner is obsessed with his PlayStation and lower-middle-class stoners; M.I.A. is a bit too fascinated by her dad’s ties to Sri Lankan terrorists. Twenty-one-year-old Londoner Lily Allen, by contrast, is an A&R exec’s wet dream — transforming her predecessors’ street sounds into enticing mainstream hits. Where they’re drawn to underground sounds like reggaeton and grime, she borrows from the more upbeat bop of ska and calypso. And where M.I.A. might threaten to bomb your house, and Skinner might threaten to get bombed in your house, Allen’s only weapons are a wicked sense of humor and a talent for slinging bons mots. One track, “Alfie,” could act as an answer to The Streets’ entire oeuvre: “Oh, oh deary me/My little brother’s in his bedroom smoking weed/I tell him he should get up because it’s nearly half past three/He can’t be bothered because he’s high on THC.” The key to Allen’s success is that her slice-of-life narratives come from a higher tax bracket. Her dad, Keith Allen, is a well-known British comic, television host and hanger-on to groups like New Order and the Happy Mondays. She’s posh. U.S. listeners who do fall for Lily will find songs like “LDN” and “Smile” to be the smarty-pants songs of the summer.

Paris Hilton: “Stars Are Blind” (Heiress Records/Warner Brothers) For the rest of you, your summer may be defined by this way-inferior summer smash from an even higher tax bracket. Comparisons have been made between Paris Hilton’s recently leaked single and the music of Gwen Stefani. I agree that both singers seem, well, really really blond. And, yeah, both make carefully crafted studio albums written and played by ringers. Like, totally! But where Stefani’s pop is distinguished by her taste for Jamaican music and Japanese ultra-pop and shows a Madonnaesque level of guile, “Stars Are Blind” finds Hilton effacing all trace of her considerable (albeit distasteful) persona. I thought they stopped making music this bland when C + C Music Factory and Paula Abdul were revealed as frauds, and that Milli Vanilli guy overdosed in a German hotel room. If Hilton were willing to engage her grossness, this still could have been a brilliant record — a female Serge Gainsbourg, an upper-class Courtney Love. Instead she leans so heavily on auto-tune and backup singers, her vocals sound less human than Kraftwerk — which, I guess, is pretty accurate.

Cold War Kids Some say CWK’s stomping ground, Whittier, California, never produced anyone of note. Lies! Both Richard Nixon and Kathy Hilton, mère de Paris, have called Whittier home. CWK are currently the target of a record-label bidding war. But the most interesting thing about songs like “Heavy Boots” and “Hospital Beds” is that they seem downright premodern — less like the blues than an electrified version of a stately Civil War fife-and-drum corps. CWK don’t rock & roll, they promenade & gallop.

“Notational Music” or “Shuffle Play”? Meme alert! Even classical music’s biggest advocates are starting to admit the boundaries between their music and so-called “pop” are porous at best. Last month, Seattle hosted the fifth annual Pop Conference, a quasi-academic gathering organized by the L.A. Times’ newest pop critic, Ann Powers. The best presentation was “My Twentieth Century,” an evening talk by The New Yorker’s Alex Ross. Illustrating his points with tracks on his MP3 player, he made connections between the music of Bob Dylan and Philip Glass; played a passage from Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov’s “Ayre” (which bore a striking resemblance to pop experimentalists like Aphex Twin and Tom Zé); and repeatedly emphasized his distaste for genre borders. Of course, being a critic, he also introduced his own genre tag, suggesting “notational music” would be a more accurate term for contemporary classical. Similarly, The Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout devoted a recent column to an emerging sensibility he calls “shuffle play,” inspired by the ubiquitous iPod. Teachout uses this term to describe the eclecticism of musicians like Bad Plus, Theo Bleckmann and Golijov — high-culture figures who borrow from rock, pop and electronica. “Shuffle play” could also be applied in reverse to the Books, Sigur Rós or Björk — pop musicians who borrow from sources on high. While attempts at taxonomy are always imperfect, all this chatter represents a valiant effort to banish the notion that classical music is an inviolate fortress of refinement.

Scott Walker: The Drift (4AD) The progression of Walker’s career has been bizarre. In 1965, he was one of three unrelated singers who formed a vocal group in California called the Walker Brothers. After moving to London, they released a series of ballads that earned them fame rivaling the Beatles’, but the group abruptly disbanded in 1967, when Scott disappeared to a monastery to learn Gregorian chant. He emerged later that year, releasing a quick succession of chart-topping solo albums inspired by the guttural Belgian-French songwriter Jacques Brel — three in 1969 alone! After that, he grew far less prolific and more uncompromising; his latest record, The Drift, is only his third in as many decades. Walker bellows dramatic, austere lyrics, backed by a chilling landscape of hovering violins and mysterious clanking noises. (Reportedly, it includes a guy punching a side of raw meat.) If you have a taste for experimental music, you’ll treasure The Drift as one of the brainiest, most carefully crafted records in your collection. Like William Gaddis or Samuel Beckett — only without the reading.

Beirut: Gulag Orkestar (BaDaBing!) Blogger advocates of Beirut (20-year-old New Mexico native Zach Condon) really seem to enjoy his lo-fi troubadour/Gypsy schtick. When stretched over 11 tracks, though, his “songwriting” sounds more like a talent for quirky arrangements. That said, “Mount Wroclai” would be a winner in anyone’s hands, and he clearly has a future — if he doesn’t believe his own hype.

Outkast: “The Mighty ‘O’?” (LaFace) I’m eagerly awaiting Outkast’s oft-postponed film, the 1930s pastiche Idlewild. This early leak from the soundtrack bears some relation to Stankonia (2000) and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003), excellent albums that established Outkast as a Caucasians’ favorite, funky yet nonthreatening hip-hop act. “The Mighty ‘O’?” embodies the duo’s low-friction bounce (like Lil’ Jon without the grit) and introduces a fresh series of nonsense syllables to fall in love with (“hey ya” meets “addi-yadda-yadda-ya/odi-yodi-yodi-yo”). Unfortunately, it fails to resolve into something transcendent. Two more syllables for you: Ho-hum.


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