Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Pop Girls: Nerina Pallot's "Dear Frustrated Superstar"

Nerina Pallot
"Dear Frustrated Superstar"

****/5


Who is the Superstar? You are, dearest listener. Reader. Whatever you may be.

Nerina Pallot just so happens to be one of Britain’s most glittering pop musicians; a woman who not only puts together funny and clever lyrics but also sings them exceptionally well and then plays instruments over the top. Admittedly, this is not an unusual process with making songs. It is, in fact, THE process. Yet Nerina Pallot does everything with an air of sophistication and cool that marks her above most of the competition and makes her far better than the meandering introduction I’m giving her.

Quite often with pop you find that musicians play music which is nice, but won’t exactly set the world on fire. This is not true of Nerina Pallot. Her music will burn us from our homes and as we flee the flames of glorious noise together she will sit and watch with a knowing smile. Her songs are so good that her record company have done their best to keep them away from the public domain; this album was barely advertised when it was first released, and Nerina got so unhappy with her record company that she wrote a message on her website laying out all her frustrations. Nothing bad about that, you’d think – but the record company saw this message, and separation ensued. Nerina Pallot is a woman who knows exactly what she wants to happen with her songs, and it’s that level of quality control which makes this album stand out so. There are a wealth of fantastic pop songs on here, alongside some cleverly constructed ballads and a number of other song styles thrown in for good measure (tango, anyone?) If anyone asks – she is the best female singer/songwriter in Britain right now. Don’t keep it secret.

The two songs on the tracklisting which might worry any right-minded music fan are “Daily Bread” and “God”, as there are no good religious songs (possible exception: Christmas Carols). Luckily, the latter is all about religious confusion – always good in a song – and the former isn’t even about religion at all. ‘Daily Bread’ starts off with a drowsy, swaying vocal which is quickly displaced by a different style entirely, as she semi-sings the verses before rushing up to a big crescendo each time the chorus sweeps in. The song is about feeling like you’ve messed up life and want to go through it again, I think, but Pallot isn’t a songwriter who gives away too much with her lyrics. The song is pleasant, but one of the less memorable on the album. ‘God’ is much superior in this respect, as Pallot sings about her religious indecision over a sinister overtone of a kick-drum and very hushed chimes. What’s most memorable is her voice, which is incredible. She swoops and swoons at will, her deep, flowing voice carrying along without a care in the world. She hasn’t a powerful voice, but she has a resonant one – think Imogen Heap, if Imogen Heap weren’t all husky and whispery.

The two singles released from the album, which you won’t have heard because they’re too good, are “Alien” and “Patience”. Along with “Rainbow” these two songs form a tremendous trio of pop supremacy. Each are in their own way a superb addition to Britain’s pop catalogue, and something which The Cure would be proud to hear upon their ears (how do you think about that last sentence? Too archaic?). She packs each with a wall of production which forms an impenetrable pop bubble, and let’s her voice do what it does best – everything. Patience is the simplest of the three, fiddly electric guitar and a drumbeat boosted through vocals. Every moment of the song has some kind of vocal performance going on, and when she reaches her chorus everything jumps up into an aesthetically pleasing audio display. At this point in the review, I’m just playing around with words for the fun of it. ‘Rainbow’ is a little darker, with the focus on some bongos, maracas, and piano. For realsies! She sings in a low register for much of the song, before suddenly reaching out and producing a clear high for the chorus. “I don’t want your sympathy/just for you to worship me”, she sings, thus making clear once and for all how women expect to be treated by men. ‘Alien’ is the best of the three.

The songs which don’t work are “Daphne And Apollo” - and that’s a bonus track anyway, so you might not even hear it. And it’s not ‘bad’ so much as it is ‘ornate’.

“Very Good Sir” is not the best of songs, at least lyrically. Vocally she is again without fault (some singers never go wrong) but the lyrics don’t give her much to go on. The chorus tries to make up for this with some “doo doo doo” bits, which always work in pop, but that’s not quite enough to make up for the boring verses. There’s a nice music breakdown thing partway through, though. “Someday Soon” sounds quite a lot like something from a stage musical (minus the rubbishness that inevitably comes from a stage musical), moving from workable verses into a pretty chorus. Having a good voice helps paper over a few of the cracks in the album for Nerina, but the song gels well and is a pleasant listen. I prefer it when she sings darker, though, which is why I find so much to like in “Jump”. Although it sounds upbeat – jaunty, you could say, although I dislike the word so please don’t – the ‘jump’ of the title is of the narrator jumping into bed with a series of one-night stands which make her feel worthless the day afterwards. That she starts the song with

“Oh good lord above/I’m immune to the love/of a good man.
I go for the suckers/the mean motherfuckers”

Is a bit of a clue as to the downbeat nature, but you’d never tell from the peppy, lolloping music. In fact, the song could easily be played during a children’s television show, such is the wanton happiness it flaunts. Given the swearing, this would make for the greatest TV show of all time.

All the songs are long, but none feel like they go on too long. The longest is the opening “If I Know You”, which is possibly the best song on the album. Sticking to the deep end of the piano and throwing in strings and a sonorous (ten points for using the word sonorous in an appropriate context, please!) she creates a mini-epic of a song. It’s not epic because she doesn’t switch around the form of the song, but it is mini-epic because of the style of singing and the lyrics. “If I know you/you’ll come sailing through the starlight in the blue” she sings with a melancholic backflip that gets me every time. A sense of loss hangs heavy over the song, but with a hopeful nature that keeps things interesting and makes the song a first-rate opener. The title track is also one of her best songs, although at first things seem like they’re going to be stalling and clich├ęd. With chimes and keyboards playing gently over the top, the song quickly unfolds into something more than at first. It’s not about hating life as a musician – she doesn’t – because the superstar is YOU, as she points out on her hilariously written biography on www.myspace.com/nerinapallot . A guitar twangs into slow action and underpins what is a deeply affecting little ballad.

I’m onto a third page of writing, but I feel no compunction to stop suddenly. If you were going to skip this review you’d have already done it, so all the people still having fun/staring in bemusement at the odd wording – do/don’t worry, I still have a fair bit to say. Drum machines and a scaling piano take precedence in “Blood Is Blood”, which also features the lines “Tinkerball my winged friend/I think you’ve got it wrong” for which I will always love Nerina Pallot. The chorus scampers away joyously, and some of Pallot’s odd lyricism finds a home during the verses. She writes in the way I wish I could emulate, and it makes her music instantly accessible. This is not the sort of pop album which takes a few listens to appreciate (hello, Fiona Apple) but is instantly endearing. Like moi! “Watch Out Billie” is as trite as you’d expect, but hangs together on the fact that Pallot herself puts irony into every syllable of her performance. She’s warning Billie Piper of all people about the predatory nature of fame. The warning is that she should enjoy her fifteen minutes, but try to build something strong off the back of them, and find something in her life she enjoys. It was eerily prescient at the time, as the album was released during The Evans Years. And it’s fair to say this song is what persuaded Piper into auditioning for Doctor Who, and moving on to bigger things than her pop career. Fair to say, but probably a lie.

For a lot of “My Last Tango”, Nerina sings with only her piano as backup. But she has a whole orchestra waiting in the wings for when she tentatively reaches the chorus, before her voice starts silkily swooping again. It’s another one of the best songs on the album, and if you delete ‘Daphne And Apollo’ from your iPod it provides a lovely finale to an especially above-average pop album. I’ll repeat my opening when I say that Nerina Pallot is one of the best musicians in Britain at the moment. With people like Imogen Heap and Jem and Gemma Hayes in contention for that position, that’s no mean thing to achieve. Dear Frustrated Superstar stalled Pallot’s career, but it still stands as a great, cohesive album. It’s full of memorable and catchy songs, and it provided the grounding she needed in order to release her superior sophomore effort. I can’t recommend it enough.

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