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Tuesday, 13 December 2011

'Watch Out Boys!' The Debut Album from Brixton-born singer Lily Rae - 'OH NO' (reviewed while it scratches me to death). Meow!!

Better lock up your posh sons and their champagne-swigging mates before this girl sees them and eats them alive - hot-wired solo artist and occasional collaborator of pop punk troubadours The Indelicates, Lily Rae's debut album 'Oh No' is a heady mix of old and new (well - old as in some were written at university and the rest at school!). 

Those written at school probably include ‘Scallywag’ - a track also later used for her debut EP which starred the suspiciously catchy track ‘Bad Film’ as the main attraction and remains, still, a quite mean-spirited attack on businessmen/ dirty old men and stoners. Or a celebration of both. It's sometimes hard to tell . .


‘Bad Film’ and ‘Scallywag’ were songs kept alive by Lily, all the way to the point where she clawed her way out of her teens and finally released her first album proper, through Corporate Records - simply but quite reasonably titled: 'Oh No'.

It's a confident and feisty debut, even if there's little cohesion between song choices. The random mix does allow for a vibrant, if multi-personalitied, listening experience though. Like wild mood swings or like a slap to the face, followed by a sloppy kiss to say sorry - you never really know quite what mood swing this singer's in. But there's a lot of fizzing anger on display throughout, even when things get mildly calmer.

There's obvious fast progression in Lily's songwriting and lusciously crafted singing displayed across the album. The progression is maybe held back a little by the overly turbulent and angst-ridden, feisty schoolgirl, society-baiting songwriting found in some of the (presumably) earlier-written tracks (although maybe all songs sung in the key of a school corridor are equally a metaphor for life in general - whatever age you are!).
 But the raw honesty and catty playfulness of these songs is still appealing.

The track ‘Scallywag’ is fun, jaunty and nicely cruel but some lyrics, such as If I catch him I will tan his behind or It's so rude to be nude come across as a little bit too achingly arch, and don't quite work. But then again, it could be brilliant played live and the poor boy in this song: well, he got told!

Jarvis Cocker from Pulp once told fans not to take his sixth form poetry stuff from the earliest albums too seriously (some of those early tracks now - paradoxically - held in the most esteem by fans). But 'Scallywag' isn't as epic in scope and ambition as some of the other, better crafted (more grown-up?) tracks found on Oh No. Some tracks seem to represent the singer at a time 'way back when', and need to be moved on from.

You get the sense that Lily Rae is cleaning out her back catalogue and sneakily fitting some of the contents, that she wants to keep, inside this first album to make up the numbers. You also suspect that, should she wish to, Rae probably has a hundred more similar confections stashed away from previous years that could just as easily have been included here - so just putting in a few, seems fair.

'Scallywag' is perhaps the weakest link in the album, in that it's more of a blueprint - a first stab at songwriting and defiantly flawed. But it's only a momentary lapse of reason - if at all (because the track acts as a good marker for the moment the other, and presumably later-penned songs, start to properly soar). It's also a song that represents the singer as herself, at that moment in time, and for that reason alone - is a song that could become a bit of a favourite among fans. Lily's very own 'Laughing Gnome'!

One of the standout tracks on the album is 'Time and Again' - simply recorded and sung, with a soaring melody far more representative of the album as a whole. It soon builds to a multi-layered finale worthy of the aforementioned early Pulp. It's too short. Like Pulp's best tracks, levels and peaks can be reached until the big climatic ending can climb no higher. A fear of heights stops this track from being the classic it could instantly have been (and no doubt will be when played live and allowed more freedom to soar, along with the crowd).


Lily Rae, born of a rock star dad FACT: and now a dedicated Roller Derby player with taxidermy as a main hobby! is a quirky and feisty recording artist and her enigmatic, take-no-bullshit (from anyone) approach illuminates her debut album. She's entirely at ease scattering random insults to bad boyfriends, dirty old men and especially the stuffily upper and oozily middle classes while curling up in the safety of feline-padded rooms or hiding away in cinemas to avoid the madness: that familiar 'modern life is rubbish' message getting an even prettier shot here of cynical steroid. Unlike others who sing about the same kind of rebellion, Rae clearly believes and lives her own hyperbole in a world where blokes, especially - are often idiots (or to put it bluntly, as she does: total 'knobs!').

You don't get that kind of honesty on too many albums - not even on a P J Harvey one! So, chaps are pretty much the enemy throughout here - losers in love (they can't even find their way around a girl's, ahem - 'tit', according to Lily) and bad in bed and dumb as they come. Although in some of the tracks there are exceptions to the rule, and I'd like to bet it's the tracks recorded most recently that are less wary of the male psyche, less scathing - as if, at even such a young age, she has mellowed a little; or at the very least gotten over a bad romance and moved on. Equally, it could just be the opposite.


Shades of similar-voiced Lily Allen's most earthy and scathing tracks are obvious throughout, but the album reminds more of Blondie and Debbie Harry at her best, at times. The swagger of Suede. Also a hint of Fairground Attraction (not sure whether that's such a good thing - perhaps a Fairground Attraction gone off the rails or become psycho would be more apt a description) and those beautifully balladic and sweetly attitude-ridden, deliciously corrupting/ scathing bands like Saint Etienne and Belle and Sebastian (although Lily has admitted a fondness for Belle and Sebastian in the past, she has also criticised them for being 'too clever' while expressing a fondness for Divine Comedy track 'Our Mutual Friend' and Morrissey albums).

If every band could songs as soaring and as heartfelt as The Divine Comedy's 'Our Mutual Friend' (and especially their most blisteringly dark and delicious album - 'Regeneration') the world would be a finer place . .

I can't help but notice at this point, similarities between Lily's 'Scallywag'  and Belle and Sebastian's 'We Rule The School' . .

On a beech tree rudely carved
N C loved me
Why did she do it?
Was she scared, was she bored?
On a bus stop in the town
- 'We rule the school'
Written for anyone to read and to see.


Lily Rae, as a recording artist, focuses on songs of wit and prickly observation of the kind that the above possibly like-minded bands also explore. But without her own full band to back her up with on stage, Lily's songs have to rely more on her (admittedly impressive) passive/ aggressive voice and wordplay rather than the thud of live rock/ indie pop - a natural hunting ground where her caustic wordplay could ferment and develop further.

Lily Rae can carry off being a solo singer fine, there's no doubt about it, and the energetic, multi-instrumental and jaunty musical ability showcased on this album is great. But I still think she cries out to be fronting a band of her own and should get out gigging as often as she can too - this is music for a live audience to spark with, and react to.

This singer's quirky good looks, soaring muddied-angel voice and defiant, confrontational stance as well as that edgy song-writing ability she clearly has, puckers-up brightly in the livelier, louder tracks of 'Oh No' - often enough to prove that one day this quietly seething singer has every right to be shown off to larger crowds and have her appearing at festivals. The trouble is - Lily may not have enough confidence quite yet to do so, as gigs so far have been sparse.


Without lots of live shows for fans to interact with, no singer can survive for long in today's music arena (where album sales are slipping and live gigs are the only big thing) however talented. Well, unless you happen to be Kate Bush (a singer we could also quietly compare Lily to) whose own enigmatic, if frustrating, break from touring came after having proved herself as an outstanding live artist already - even though that exhausting schedule and dedication to detail, in the end, proved to be an experience that almost broke her career.

Rae is a traumatic talent and there are plenty of stand-out tracks dotted across Oh No - certainly enough to promise an important singer/songwriter waiting nonchalantly in the wings. Album opener 'Flash' is a toe-tapping, Hammond organ-hued, electro country-style love song. I love the line: 'The foxes are telling me I've lost my grip' - it reminds me of Lars Van Triers's controversial movie descent into madness seen in 2009’s 'Antichrist', starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, and I suspect Gainsbourg as a singer and performer isn't that far removed from Lily Rae. There’s the same 'beauty framed by darkness within', keeping them both alive.

'Flash' is a grown-up grumpy grouch of a love song and lays the ground for what's to come - the second track ‘Hiding in Cinemas’ which is even better. Dark and moody, sensual and uplifting - it's simply gorgeous (as well as being full of twisting vocal harmonies to liven things up). The dark and broody guitar riffs in this one stay stuck to the head and blu-tacked to the brain. Lost and forlorn, hiding away in cinemas in the dark; a bittersweet, guilt-ridden apology to splitting up with a partner who drags you down and those sudden bursts of energy and the enthusiasm of a new lease of life that rise out of traumatic decisions - or maybe even new love? Lily Rae sings with real deep-toned, hushed distantness here - a sure maturity in her singing and 'Hiding in Cinemas' is without doubt the album's stand-out track. 


For sheer hatred of males, skip forward to the big loser getting hung, drawn and quartered for Track 7 and the fabulously bitchy delights of ‘Diane’ - a song that includes the lyrics: 'Diane why do you stay with him? You never liked him anyway - the boy's a knob'. Well yeah, quite! It gets worse, for the boy anyway: 'Diane it's time for you to live, to save yourself from this fucking div'. I'm suddenly really scared of Lily Rae. I mean - really! This track is by far the most Blondie-esque of the album. It works. It's great! It's Debbie Harry with extra spunk and anger. Can you get more punk than that?


Track 4, ‘The Unhappy Prince’ is a flamboyant treat and a showcase track that's been around for a while - a nostalgic, bitchy, cruel, lindy hop waltz through fairytale land. It's good fun, but probably wouldn't work in larger measures, such as a whole album’s worth. As a mid-album filler it's probably in the right place. It's also the track that slates a boy for not being able to find his way around the female chest but he still seems to be able to get the girls - his cheated-on girlfriend gets her revenge by telling him that he's a jerk, and then moving on, forever. (I think!) This song also has - for possibly the first time in the history of recorded music - a bloke in the middle slur the words: 'I love you babe', for dramatic effect!

I still prefer tracks such as 'Hiding in Cinemas' to the ones that go off in this slightly too playfully crazy (but admittedly still nasty) direction, including the penultimate track - ‘Oh To Be Young And Sexy’ which admittedly does rock out and features growly and gruff vocals from Lily that I suspect would also be great fun to listen to live (along with 'The Unhappy Prince').


The album closes with the piano-plonking, dark and gloomy loveliness of 'Little Kittens'. It’s one of two powerful ballads on the album (the other being Track 8's, ‘Joan of Arc’ which is a magic toyshop of a last will and testament to doomed love, with some bloody great lyrics: 'I saw you steal an apple and tied it in your shirt, your eyes they held me hostage - they turned my pride to dirt').

‘Kittens’, though, is an epic, hugely promising, assured closer - cementing the deal. It conjures up images of a lost and forlorn lover, musing selfishly on the nature of that love, surrounded by little sweet kittens (and not a lot else) in a rundown abode in the middle of nowhere land – but these little sweet kittens are less Disney, more Nastassja Kinski in 'Cat People' kind of creepy (S/M tinged sultriness seeping through the walls of this sorrow-drenched bedsit). Is it about a girl plotting revenge? Perhaps: 'Don’t forget that little kittens have the sharpest claws' whispers Lily. finally - and I really believe she means it! And if that's not a good way to end things, to stop the album leaving the listener wanting more with, then I can't think of one right now.


'Oh No' is meant to be sinister fun – and it works. It’s addictive and part-melodic/ part-punk/ part-happy clappy, knee-crunchingly gleeful. A little too quirky, 'performanced' and patchwork at times perhaps, but it still stinks of dirty rotten attitude throughout and is a refreshingly youthful and twisted blast of icy air to come spitting or cooing out of your headphones.

Lily Rae is a ticking time bomb of success, sinisterly counting itself down. Some of the songs showcased on her debut album really could blast her into better known, big time status but I kind of suspect the thought would be abhorrent to Rae herself. For the moment, it's a gentle toe being dipped into crystal clear, piranha-infested waters, but wary of wading in too deep just yet.

If she keeps writing songs as revved-up as 'Bad Film', 'Kittens', 'Diane', 'Hiding in Cinemas' or 'Time and Again' and tours a little more often, there's no doubt that Lily Rae could get to be one of the most exciting and feisty new singer/songwriters out there on the main stage. Her dulcet but deadly voice is simply outstanding and spitefully hypnotic, especially in the slower tracks where it gets properly showcased on this album. The next few years will be make or break. But for now there is always an 'Oh No' to have fun with while we wait.

(And for deliriously evil, sharp-clawed, fatally-scorned young women to plot their butter-wouldn’t-melt revenge to . . )

words: mark gordon palmer

Update: July 2014 ~ new album from Lily Rae called 'Your Face' also now available from Corporate Records.

Update: March 2016 ~ Lily's new band FIGHTMILK - now on tour!  

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