The debut album from 28-year-old Sri Lankan refugee turned London hipster Maya Arulpragasam, Arular is in the James Brown tradition of great pop lyrics: all slogans and exhortations. (Typical sample: "Pull up the people/Pull up the poor.") But where Brown survived the gauntlet of the Jim Crow South to become hype man for the civil rights movement, M.I.A.'s wordcraft is informed by a different struggle: third-world civil war survival.
Her dad -- the Arular of the title -- is a big shot with the Tamil Tigers, freedom fighters or terrorists depending on your perspective, and I won't pretend to know enough about Sri Lankan politics to have an opinion. She fled Sri Lanka with her mother and siblings as a preteen. Apparently, M.I.A. never lived with her father and hasn't seen him in a decade.
Given the third-world political themes, you might think Arulpragasam wants to be a Bob Marley-like figure, but listen close and she's almost as confused as you are. She never actively endorses the Tamil Tigers here (in interviews, she's described her dad as "insane") but obsesses over them and her dad's small role in the geopolitical circus, as you'd expect anyone with her background would. And this infuses her music with volatile imagery: Arular's songs sound like double-dutch rhymes as played out, defiantly, in the middle of a war zone. ("I got the bombs to make you blow/I got the beats to make you bang bang bang" or "You no like the people/They no like you/Then they go set it off with a big boom/Every gun in a battle is a son and daughter too.") Do little girls in Afghanistan or Iraq play double-dutch? Sri Lanka?
Also like Brown, M.I.A. embodies the pop promise that a brilliant musician doesn't have to be able to play an instrument or read a note. But the killer band she leads isn't made of flesh-and-blood sidekicks but consists of an electronic contraption called the Roland MC-505 Groovebox. This homemade electro-pop and secondhand hip-hop reverberates with echoes of dancehall, grime, and techno, Bollywood, Miami bass, and Brazilian favela funk. It's cobbled together from the blasted fragments of global pop culture, entirely received and not quite like anything you've ever heard. It's irresistible, and Arulpragasam knows it: "Everything that I own is on I.O.U./But I'm here bringing y'all something new."
Ultimately, Arular is as chaotic and overpowering -- and as classic -- as Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, the best hip-hop album ever and another James Brownian blast of beat science and political sloganeering. But there is one difference: Arular has a beauty and playfulness that has everything to do with the feminine perspective that Public Enemy scorned. For the past two months, this has been the afternoon dance-party soundtrack of choice for both me and my infant daughter. -- Chris Herrington
The idea that Regina Spektor wrote the tracks on her second full-length and major-label debut, Soviet Kitsch, seems foreign. Featuring mostly just Spektor and her piano, these DIY soul-pop songs sound eccentrically restless and stylistically chockablock, as if the Moscow-born, Brooklyn-raised singer and Strokes collaborator translated the songs straight from her imagination to the ones and zeros of your CD. As a result, the album sounds performed rather than recorded, a quality that recalls both Ethel Merman and Patti Smith and raises Soviet Kitsch above the likes of Tori Amos and Vanessa Carlton.
However, these songs are real songs, not stunts, and Spektor holds forth on romantic rifts, posturing hipsters, business inhumanity, and her own nightmares of death. "The Flowers" is the most emotionally affecting song, but Spektor never feels so bad that she can't segue into "Hava Nagila." She succeeds in conveying a distinct personality through her bravura performance, and that's what makes Soviet Kitsch so confidently and charmingly idiosyncratic. n -- Stephen Deusner