A British invader with sass

February 9, 2007


The most surprising thing about English pop phenom Lily Allen is not that her rise to fame was almost entirely propelled by her MySpace Web site.

That digital do-it-yourself triumph is certainly part of the story of her debut album, "Alright, Still," which was finally released in the United States last week, debuting at No. 20 on the Billboard album chart. But it wouldn't matter nearly as much if her unique mix of reggae, cabaret, '70s New Wave and '60s space-age bachelor pad sounds wasn't so fresh and exciting, and if she didn't deliver it with such a wonderfully sassy attitude.

"Alright, Still" is such a sophisticated effort, it's easy to forget that the 21-year-old Allen is still a relative novice as a live performer. Her first Chicago show at Double Door last year was reportedly underwhelming, but she more than held her own during a sold-out show at Metro on Thursday night, fronting seven musicians, including a three-piece horn section, all adorned in polo shirts of varying shades of blue.

If you'd only heard Allen's sweeter songs, like the sunny single "Smile" or the lovely ballad "The Littlest Things," you might have wondered why the petite singer took the stage wearing a giant gold pendant in the shape of a MAC-10 machine-gun. But then she'd dedicate a song such as "Knock 'Em" to "any of you girls who've ever had a stranger in a bar or somewhere grab your [posterior]," or note that "Not Big" is "a song about men with small [private parts], and how unpleasant that is," and the furious but wickedly funny lyrical barbs aimed at errant males would fly as fast as bullets, potentially causing just as much damage.

The only lull in the 75-minute set came during two stripped-down semi-acoustic covers, which Allen admitted she'd had to include "because I only have one album with 11 songs, and you all paid good money to be here!" Unfortunately, the unremarkable choices -- "Everybody's Changing" by Keane and "She Moves in Her Own Way" by the Kooks -- were missed opportunities: How great would it have been to hear her cover a great tune by a spiritual predecessor like Nancy Sinatra or Debbie Harry instead?

We got some idea at the start of the well-deserved encore, when Allen claimed "Blank Expression" by the Specials as her own, the lilting rhythms and snide lyrics very much in keeping with her own songs. After one more original about yet another very bad boy -- "Alfie," a tune that happens to be about her younger brother -- the night was over with a final burst of blissful, exuberant pop, sending fans home counting the days until the latest victorious British invader returns.