Friday, 28 May 2010

Nerina Pallot - The Graduate

The problem with the market for female singer-songwriters is that it is fit to busting at the moment and with offerings from Lady Gaga to Taylor Swift and every flavour in between, consumers are getting a bit choiced out. So to get your head above the parapet today requires an unusual talent. In my Top 12 albums of the Noughties, I singled out ‘Fires’ by UK singer Nerina Pallot as it is a work of real, if yet unsung, talent. As a consequence, I have been living with its follow up, ‘The Graduate’ for a few weeks now and feel I am in a position to judge whether it is worthy of its predecessor.

‘The Graduate’ has not had an easy birth. Nerina was guided towards collaborating with other big name songwriters for this album but none of that material appears on this album which she has released on her own 14th Floor record label. This all speaks volumes about the music industry and its machinations. Aimee Mann was also forced down this route and ended up writing and issuing her own stuff through her own label. Why can’t people recognise that talent needs to be nurtured not interfered with?

So what of ‘The Graduate’ – named in honour of Nerina passing her Degree in English Literature? Whereas ‘Fires’ has a pervading atmosphere of worthiness and endeavour, ‘The Graduate’ sounds much looser and almost playful in a way that allows her personality and humour to come through. She has widened her horizons and included material that is at one extreme, pure pop and which may have the Scissor Sisters wondering whether to take her on as songwriter, and at the other, more experimental.

In the former camp is the wonderful ‘Real Late Starter’, a peon to slackers everywhere, the knowing ‘I Don’t Want To Go Out’ and the self deprecating ‘When Did I Become Such a Bitch?’ All these show her kooky character to its best advantage. But she can be serious, as the touching ‘Coming Home’ about her father shows and she can be quite breathtaking as in ‘It Starts’ where she tries on Kate Bush’s shoes and finds that not only do they fit, they allow her to run for miles and be earnest without mawkishness.

The key track in the experimental category is ‘Cigarette’ which at a languid 5 plus minutes is a maelstrom of influences from early Bowie and Pink Floyd through to psychedelia period Beatles. I feel this may be the divider for her fans to date and already it is prompting much comment amongst reviewers. Personally, I love it but more importantly, I think it points the way for her as an artist so that her USP is pushed as far away from the pack as possible. In summary, this is another fine album from a great talent who is refusing to stand still and has brushed off the doubters and ploughed her own furrow. Long may it continue.

Like Little Boots, Nerina is a great one for posting informal 'at home' videos on YouTube. Here's her stunning version of 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'. Its rawness and honesty in performance touches me deeply...and I still love to hear the piano played properly.

Friday, 21 May 2010


In life there are a number of unwritten rules, like toast falling jam side down. Another is that when a music collection grows to a certain point, there is an ‘event horizon’ effect where some parts of it drop off the radar, never to be seen again. Generally those items hidden behind the horizon comprise a whole bunch of only-played-once miscalculations and stuff that was OK at the time but has since palled. Often, it is a bit of a shock to rediscover lost albums that you had forgotten about. and the latest chapter in this continuing saga of ‘lost’ albums involves the self-titled debut from Elastica.

At the time of purchase in 1995, I was very excited by Elastica and thought this was the bees’ knees. It had energy, great spiky tunes and impeccable credibility. Fronted by Justine Frischmann, who at the time was in the midst of a Posh ‘n Becks style romance with Blur’s Damon Albarn, the band also comprised Justin Welch (drums), Annie Holland (Bass) and Donna Matthews (Guitar) and they were the darlings of the indie-press. The album sold exceedingly well – one of the best selling debuts ever - but then it all went wrong for Justine and crew and after a lack-lustre follow up four years later the band folded.

Listening to ‘Elastica’ now is a curiously disappointing experience. Although the energy and spikes remain, aside from a couple of tracks, the overall effect is one of datedness and not really knowing who they were. In fact the band suffered badly from accusations of plagiarism, initially from masters of the short sharp song, Wire and later from The Stranglers over the riff contained in ‘Waking Up’. Both claims were eventually settled but the damage was done. I’m surprised that New Order didn’t get in on the act over ‘Never Here’ which is very much in the style of something off ‘Technique’ but I think they were having their own crisis of confidence at the time and so let it pass.

The real problem with ‘Elastica’ is that the combination of Justine’s post punk sneer, twenty years too late, and the Britpop meets punk style rather puts the whole enterprise into a displaced time-loop from which it will never escape. And the further we distance ourselves in the time continuum, the worse it will sound.

I hear that Justine Frischmann is now a successful abstract artist. Good career change!  But I still like 'Waking Up'.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Eskimo Joe and the 200 Posts

Contemplating my Blogger Dashboard the other day brought to my attention the following astounding fact: this is my 200th Post! I can’t let this milestone pass without marking it in some way so I thought I’d have a think about what has happened since that long off day in May 2007 when I posted my first thoughts.

The impetus for starting my own blog came from my oldest internet buddy and cartoonist extraordinaire, TR1-guy, who became a blogger soon after I first encountered him via his ‘Fanny’ internet site (now FannyRocks) to which I contributed some content. Having just published my book, I needed an outlet for my writing without the commitment of another huge tome and so chose to start my own blog, ‘Music Obsessive’ and here we are 200 posts later.

The one thing that has surprised me about blogging is how much fun it has been to make ‘internet friends’ and how widespread geographically they are and how loyal they can be. One of the very first blogs I encountered and decided that I liked enough to go back to regularly was Jayne’s ‘A Novice Novelist’. We have been commenting back and forth ever since and she is a Top Commentator on this blog (see widget in right hand side bar). In fact, Jayne, you have two entries in the list so if you hadn’t changed your name, you’d be number one!

Others that I would like to thank for their support over the years include Charlie, Barbara (Layla), Jeff, Jennifer K, Perplexio and Alan, my one ‘freelance’ commentator.

I have also been lucky enough to connect with people who actually work in the music industry which has added a new insight into my chosen subject, people like Adrian du Plessis, manager of Canadian singer Allison Crowe, who is another regular commentator at this blog (check out Adrian’s own blog to hear tracks from Allison’s new CD, ‘Spiral’). Others in this category would be Doris Brendel, ex-singer with The Velvet Hour and now a solo artist, whose new album I intend to review as soon as it is available, and the two remaining members of Martha and the Muffins.

New friends continue to arrive. A new blog that I have found very entertaining is the Oz husband and wife team, YourZenMine who write great reviews of favourite albums in their collection and indulge in a bit of marital bickering on the side. Great fun! I’ve been a regular visitor to their blog and left one or two comments when the urge took me. In return and quite unprompted, I have been presented with a CD from their native land, ‘A Song Is A City’ by Eskimo Joe. And just to prove what impeccable taste they have, it is really very good. Whilst it has that slightly indefinable antipodean feel of a Crowded House/Savage Garden with added INXS, it is packed with great songs and rolls along with real gusto. So much so that my wife has purloined it to play in the car on the school run. Recommended.

So to everyone who has read this blog or commented or both, thank you very much for being around. I’ll try and make it worth your while for another 200 posts.

Friday, 7 May 2010

The 'Difficult' 3rd Album

Ok, new round, no conferring. What is it that links Siouxsie and the Banshees to Kate Bush?

No, not a shock of black hair, nor the fact that their best years were in the mid-1980s. In fact, you couldn’t pick a more diverse duo. The one, a classically trained Home Counties singer-songwriter given to strangely melodic ballads about Victorian heroines and the other, a band forged in the maelstrom of punk who eschewed virtuosity and created metallic anthems of isolation and horror.

But despite their obvious differences their career path was spookily similar, at least over their first 4 albums. Siouxsie and the Banshees initially produced a stunning debut, ‘The Scream’ largely in the punk tradition of pounding drums and sheets of angular guitar and followed it up with undue haste with a second album, ‘Join Hands’ in a similar style but containing inferior material. By the time the third album was in the melting pot, half the band had left and it was left to Siouxsie and Steve Severin to cobble something together on their own. The resultant release, ‘Kaleidoscope’ was a strange mixture of ambient music and pop songs under the guise of new wave experimentation. Having recruited a new guitarist and drummer who were more than competent players (what punk ethic?) their fourth album, ‘JuJu’ was a monster hit which showcased a newly forged Siouxsie style which would become the norm from then on.

Kate Bush’s first four albums followed a similar pattern. Her first, ‘The Kick Inside’ was a stunning debut of simple yet highly inventive songs. Her second, ‘Lionheart’ followed too close on its heels by order of her record label and was disappointing in as much as the material was a bit underdeveloped and the arrangements too conventional. By her third effort, ‘Never Forever’, Kate had won some hard fought control over her own artistic process and had acquired a state of the art Fairlight sampler. The result is a curious mixture of the type of songs she had written for the first two albums, but arranged in a far more interesting way and the type of songs that she would write later in her career but without the adventurous production. This change of direction culminated in her fourth album, the uncompromisingly left field ‘The Dreaming’ and the rest is well documented.

So the real link is the third and notoriously ‘difficult’ third album. Each of them, and for different reasons, produced an unexpectedly different, slightly hit-and-miss album which is clearly a transitional stage that links the boundaries of a vast chasm between what they were and what they were to become. Not many artists have a massive change in style so early in their trajectory and it is fascinating to have such a clear record of where their two styles clash warily.