Invasion of the British Babes
I discovered Eliza Doolittle the way most of my musical discoveries happen — YouTube. I was watching the video for Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” and saw an attractive girl on a related link. So of course, I clicked on it.
What I found was a talented and charismatic vocalist holding her own with Green’s song backed by two quirky guys on upright bass, finger snaps and harmony. “She should have a record deal,” I thought. And she did. Eliza Doolittle’s eponymous debut album, released last July in the U.K., has already gone platinum there and will be released on March 22 in the U.S.
I watched all three of her music videos and downloaded her album. I couldn’t understand why. When was the last time I could listen to more than a few seconds of mainstream female artists? When I thought of the names I figured it out — Amy Winehouse, Corrine Bailey Rae and Lily Allen. All English, and yet leaning toward a side of pop music that draws from some kind of older established roots — usually ska, reggae, blues, jazz and soul — rather than the synth-pop dance crap that currently has a choke hold on American Billboard charts. If the song is performed live with back up dancers or acrobatics a la Pink at last years VMAs, it usually isn’t for me.
The first time I heard Amy Winehouse I was blown away by her bluesy, ballsy sound. I listened to “You Know that I’m No Good” and “Me and Mr. Jones” on repeat for days. Corrine Bailey Rae initially put out some solid summery pop like “Put Your Records On” as well as some welcomed soulful material, such as “Like a Star.” When I heard Lily Allen’s bouncy “Smile” and the line, “At first when I hear you cry/It makes me smile,” I couldn’t stop laughing.
Eliza Doolittle is continuing in this fashion. She occasionally has a blues and jazz-lite sound to her music, like the punchy “Pack Up” that incorporates horns and the chorus from the 1915 English song “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag,” or “Missing,” which starts with a sample of the 1959 song “Come Softly To Me” by the Fleetwoods. One could argue that it’s all just clever packaging — a cash-in on a nostalgic sound that other artists do better, and you might be right, but it works really well for her.
However, Doolittle isn’t afraid for going for all out girl pop — as in sexy, young and catchy. In “Skinny Genes,” Doolittle asserts, “I really don’t like your skinny jeans/So take them off of me/Show me what you’ve got underneath/So we can do this properly.” The video is a nonstop string of visual sexual innuendo and puts Katy Perry blasting whipped cream from her boobs to shame. It includes a girl being played like a stand-up bass, a balloon being popped, two tiny disco balls in a hand, a girl wiping her lips after eating watermelon, a light switch being turned on, a toy train going into a tunnel and more, all timed to the whistles that finish the phrase “I like it when you…”
Unfortunately Eliza Doolittle’s mainstream relevance in this country has a good chance of being reduced to an Apple or Target commercial (think The Submarines’ “You Me and the Bourgeoisie” or even Paul McCartney’s “Dance Tonight”). Good pop is perfect advertising fodder — especially when it’s new and, therefore, easily disposable. Classic songs have a life beyond that Cadillac commercial, but in the age of iTunes many artists have suffered the fate of a “Top Downloaded Single” without enough attention paid to the album it came from.
I hope for the sake of pure enjoyment this doesn’t happen. While Doolittle may not have the sophistication or vocal chops of an artist like Adele or Florence Welch, her sound is different. It’s all held together by the pure fun of it. There isn’t much melancholy on Doolittle’s album. In fact, it’s because of this that she is a great addition to the current lineup of new-ish female British singers. Doolittle has made a sunny album perfect for summertime with laidback melodies and even more laidback lyrics. Adele’s voice is incredibly soulful, but sometimes I just want to hear a girl sweetly sing, “Instead of going to the movies tonight/there’s no shame /in us playing/the best of that Sega Mega Drive.”
Considering the mid-aughts’ trans-Atlantic crossover of Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, Corinne Bailey Rae and even Natasha Bedingfield, things are looking positive for Doolittle. All of those artists’ albums went at least gold in the U.S. and with Florence + the Machine leading the new female Brit-pack with a Grammy nod for Best New Artist, Doolittle has an excellent chance of riding the wave across the pond.