Digital Venuses

UK pop starlets vie for America's heart of darkness
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Call them the new British bitch pack: barefoot soul shouter Joss Stone and her ascendant sistren, skankin' Lily Allen and torchy Amy Winehouse (Corinne Bailey Rae's exempted due to being a queen of nice and hazy sentiment and, well, yes, color). The Pipettes also deliver Ronettes-Supremes paeans but have yet to splash large beyond the UK. It's Stone and Winehouse who have made recent history on the US pop charts: the latter's Back to Black (Republic) scored the highest ever debut for a British woman (number seven), and Stone's Introducing Joss Stone (Virgin) followed a week later, debuting at number two.

The third release in this triumvirate, Allen's Alright, Still (Capitol), is the least compelling, though it possesses the most diverse sonic palette: ska, Britpop jangle, punk, rocksteady, N'Awlinz funk, and English dancehall, courtesy of her fellow celebutot music maker, DJ and producer Mark Ronson. While "Friend of Mine" will doubtless prove a decent summer jam, the scattershot production speaks more to Ronson's patented retro-soul ambition than to individuality on Allen's part. I'm already over the stunt sampling of Professor Longhair and find Allen's spin on jaded indie affect and lyrics powered by class snobbery grating.

The aforementioned artists are part of yet another wave of British acts working in black American musical idioms: James Hunter, James Morrison, Lady Sovereign, and Alice Russell. Call them the spawn of Dusty Springfield. Blue-eyed British soul diva Springfield's 1969 classic Dusty in Memphis (Rhino/WEA) is the obvious grail for most of these new acolytes. They've also benefited from the successive layers of space opened by Blighty's trends in Northern soul, acid jazz, trip-hop, and the Yankee stand taken for retro soul by the now-defunct Desco label (which split into Soul Fire and Daptone) with black vocalists such as Lee Fields. One wants to big up Allen, Winehouse, and Stone on the sisterhood empowerment tip for their brassy attitude and scathing kiss-offs to trifling men on these recordings. And it's interesting that they've emerged at a time when their male counterparts, such as Morrison — and David Gray and Chris Martin — seem to have "bitched up." Yet this gender power–reversal is sadly trumped by glaring issues of race and authenticity.

REAL ME, REAL MIMICRY

Nowhere are these issues more clearly embodied than in Joss Stone, who's about to hit the Yay Area. She's been around for a minute, leading the cited alien invasion with her Miami Sound–assisted debut, The Soul Sessions (Virgin), in 2003. Missed in all the hype and scandal over Stone's breakup with Motown scion Beau Dozier, her recent adoption of a faux-Yank accent, and the sacking of her handlers is the fact that her much-vaunted revamp has a precedent: Stone described her second CD — Mind, Body, and Soul (Virgin) — as her "real debut," and it contained a mix of Southern soul, urban swing, and hip-hop similar to the template codified by Lauryn Hill in the late 1990s.

The 19-year-old blond Venus actually coaxed Hill out of her fog to guest on "Music," but overall Introducing merely treads water instead of shifting any postmillennial soul paradigm. Stone remains trapped by the novelty factor of having been a 15-year-old girl from Devon who could mimic a middle-aged black American singer and has not figured out how to reconcile her West Country roots, accent, and affluence with the grit and honesty her ambitions require.

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