Far from the middle of the road

I put on Lily Allen‘s debut CD, Alright, Still (EMI), and a friend goes: “Is this Corinne Bailey Rae?” I’d like to scold her, scoff at her and act superior (“Hah. Corinne Bailey Rae, indeed.”), except that I made the exact same mistake when I first heard Allen.

Don’t tell Allen that she sounds like Rae, though.
In an interview she responded to the comparison by telling the following joke: “Why did Corinne Bailey Rae cross the road? To get to the middle.”

Allen may sound like her more middle-of-the-road counterpart (at first), and her lyrics may get her compared to The Streets a lot, but by the second listen her debut starts to sound like Lily Allen.

And while Allen does make pop music, it isn’t middle of the road. She is on a one-woman mission to rescue pop from the bowl of saccharine-coated dung into which it has fallen. “Pop should be popular, but exciting and interesting, like T.Rex and The Clash”, she has said. “Steps and S Club 7 shouldn’t have been called pop—they should have been called shit.”

Allen has been described as “the singer-songwriter for the iPod generation”, and she deserves it. Her lyrics are refreshing. She rhymes Kate Moss with weight loss; crucifies an ex-boyfriend in song, telling the entire world that he “never made me come” and asking him how he’ll feel when “I work my way through your mates”. She sings a happy little ditty and only when one pays attention does one realise that she’s singing about a “pimp and his crack whore”.

The best part is that all of it is so catchy that it will storm the charts, get to number one and have teenyboppers chanting her lyrics rather than S Club 7’s, and for that she can’t be praised enough.

ALSO ON THE SHELF

Sean Burke

Consciousness Hiphop (Amorfous Music)

In the Nineties, Sean Burke used to run around with a cheesy cover band called Afro-d-Ziac whose all-over-the-place repertoire was actually quite a crowd puller. Later on, Sean would go on to write jingles for radio and TV shows while developing his production and engineering talents. Consciousness Hiphop, his fourth album, comes across as yet another makeover. Burke has dirtied up a little and his primary concern, as his Che Guevara mimicking cover attests, is the liberation of the proletariat. From what exactly, isn’t clear. Although Burke is now heavy-handedly “conscious”, besides porous polemics and a long list of whinges delivered in a grating, affected voice, it’s hard to make out the fine print of his political agenda. Maybe a portrait about his day-to-day life would have been more informative. There’s also another huge problem: the beats suck unanimously.—Kwanele Sosibo

Cassette

Welcome Back to Earth (Sony/BMG)

When I first saw Cassette live, I was very confused. Front man Jon Savage pranced around the stage, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He may dress indie but at heart there is a pop star à la Robbie Williams just waiting to break through. Now they have their little retro debut out in stores and it’s exactly what was expected: pop songs doused in swathes of piano and guitar to dress them up all indie. And not in a cool way like The Concretes or Death Cab for Cutie, but in a very obvious way. The album starts with that snatch of sound that those old enough to own original tapes will remember, and is broken down into side A and side B. They may have covered Elvis Costello’s Pump It Up, stripping it of all its punk edge, but the majority of the album is disappointing. Imagine Robbie dressed up in some Coldplay credibility ... oh, sorry, I forgot Coldplay weren’t that credible to begin with. All concept, no substance.—Lloyd Gedye

iForward, Russia!

Give Me a Wall (Just Music)

¡Forward, Russia!, despite having a name with punctuation that makes it any journalist’s worst nightmare, are a solid indie band with loads of potential. They are, however, a bit held back by their own attempts to be all arty and strange. The band actually made the ridiculous decision to release only tracks with numbers rather than names, something they have thankfully given up on their latest release, Give Me a Wall. The album is solid enough, although a bit devoid of subtlety and wilfully obscure—what the lead singer is actually singing is anyone’s guess. That said, ¡Forward, Russia! make music that’s refreshingly different to that of their indie-rock counterparts. There are shades of Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen and other 1980s new wave in there, but with far less emphasis on catchy tunes than that found on albums by indie heroes such as Kaizer Chiefs and Franz Ferdinand. Parts of the album hit the spot completely, leaving one wanting more from this band, but if they were to drop their art-school pretensions they’d be all the better for it.—Daniel Friedman

Peter Grant

New Vintage (Universal)

Peter Grant took time and selected 15 of the best-written songs to date—well, not entirely the best but the smooth and sweet—and out came this album. New Vintage is 100% cover versions that are performed neither badly nor exceptionally well. Although Grant has a perfectly mature-sounding voice, none of its smoothness could reignite these vintage songs to give them a 21st-century feel. Could it be that the artist wanted to maintain the old sound? “Peter Grant’s version of Joanna is simply outstanding,” says original Joanna songwriter Tony Hatch. “I love Peter Grant’s version. It’s so refreshing to encounter a young performer with style, passion and a sense of what makes up a perfect arrangement,” says Jimmy Webb, who wrote Didn’t We. Without maligning Grant’s singing talent, I maintain that selling music is most rewarding than receiving praise.—Monako Dibetle

Jam on Tuesday

Scratching the Surface (Alter-Ego)

Have you ever salivated at the sight of a golden-glazed, succulent roast chicken and when you took your first bite the meat was dry but you ate it anyway because you were starving? That’s what local band Jam on Tuesday’s album Scratching the Surface is like. It’s covered with golden-glazed guitar riffs and succulent rhythm guitar but it doesn’t rock you—well, it does, but to sleep. Lead singer Gill Persson’s soft and haunting voice is suitable for lullabies. But mix her voice with the grungy guitar riffs provided by lead guitarist Kurt Slabbert and it is like listening to Enya and Linkin Park having sex, a sound I’d rather stay clear of. That said, when the band keep it slow and mellow, they do it well. Track three, Merry-Go-Round, is catchy (irritatingly so) and has radio and commercial appeal.—Hila Bouzaglou

Tommy Lee

TommyLand (ASP)

When I played the first song off Tommy Lee’s new album, Tommyland, for my friend, she jumped with excitement and asked if it was the new Nick Lachey song. Granted, my friend is a pop princess, but the fact that she mistook Tommy Lee for a boy-band-type pop artist is something worth discussing. The first song is poppy indeed—cringingly so. But the rest of the album is good, solid pop-rock. In fact, if you’re a Nickelback fan, I highly recommend this album because Tommy Lee sounds exactly the same. Noticeable tracks include I Need You (soft and touching), Make Believe (the one on which he sounds exactly like Nickelback) and Makin Me Crazy (pop-rock to the max). As far as technicalities go, the album is flawless. It’s evident you’re listening to a man who has been in the industry for more than two decades.—Hila Bouzaglou

Christina Milian

So Amazin’ (Universal)

So Amazin’ is Christina Milian’s third album; what is not immediately clear is whether the title refers to the contents of the CD or the sultry picture of Milian with rather a lot of hair covering her pretty face. As R&B goes, it is a decent offering from a diva who is also trying her hand in the film industry, but So Amazin’ lacks its own identity, the artist having decided to swim downstream in the street sound in which the industry’s darlings such as Beyoncé and others are drowning. Her Say I, featuring Young Jeezy, is a great club song. Twisted is also great, and Who’s Going Ride—they forgot to put a question mark at the end—is a decent singalong song Milian did with Three 6 Mafia, but the same cannot be said for the other songs on the album.—Percy Zvomuya

Tom Petty

Highway Companion (Gallo)

I have a soft spot for Tom Petty; he is a Traveling Willbury after all. However, with this declared, I couldn’t really get into his new album. If you were going to name an album Highway Companion, surely you were asking for a road test? So, heading out to Bloemfontein a while ago, I popped it on the car stereo. Let’s just say it didn’t quite cut the grade. By the time I got to track six, Turn the Car Around, I had figured that Petty and I were definitely heading in different directions.—Lloyd Gedye

Shanik

Ingoma (David Gresham)

Shanik sings of ancestors, witchcraft, culture and love in isiSwati, and that makes her a one of a kind in the overcrowded world of traditional music. Many of her songs sound like those one hears at full blast at taxi ranks and township hostels on Sunday afternoons. Ingoma is a migrant worker’s must-have, and of course for those musical activists with a taste for almost everything. Shanik obviously has singing talent, and although her songs don’t really beg one to listen to them, it is not hard to relate to them. Her sound is South African but seems to be lacking the traditional spunk championed by the likes of the evergreen Busi Mhlongo and the beautiful Thandiswa Mazwai. Coincidentally, I listened to this offering when South Africa celebrated Heritage Day on September 24, and to a great extent Ingoma sounded so relevant to the day’s theme.—Monako Dibetle

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