Friday, 24 June 2011

Nerina Pallot - Year Of The Wolf

For her fourth album, ‘Year of the Wolf’ released this last month, Nerina Pallot has been welcomed back into the fold by Polydor (who dropped her after her debut) and has taken the brave step of enlisting the production talents of Bernard Butler, he who guided Duffy to fame and fortune on the back of the retro-sounding ‘Rockferry’.  Presumably this is an attempt to move up to the big league after three albums on the sidelines. Having listening to YOTW several times now, I am still a little undecided as to whether this was a good move or not.  There is certainly a retro feel to the whole project – even the cover depicts her wearing what looks like one of Carly Simon’s hats, circa 1972.

Inevitably, Butler’s fingerprints are everywhere and never more so than the rather heavy-handed string arrangements and aggressive guitar figures which attend some songs, but I can’t decide whether this has enhanced Nerina’s own personality – so prevalent on her previous outing, ‘The Graduate’ – or submerged it in unnecessary production.  Either way, I am now getting more used to the overall sound and feel of the album and finding that it is not quite as un-nerving as I thought.  But has she sacrificed her own essence for Polydor’s vision of success?

Having become a mother in late 2010 has clearly modified Nerina’s outlook and the lyrical content of the songs has taken on a more worldly wise tenor but still retains her trademark literacy.  The songs range from the upbeat pop of ‘Put Your Hands Up’ (a real tilt at the charts, I feel) to tender ballads such as ‘If I Lost You Now’ but they all have a more polished demeanour about them than on previous albums.  It is here that I am having trouble as the polishing has taken off the patina of Nerina’s great strength – her ability to communicate emotion.  There are undoubtedly great tunes on this album and there is humour but the raw emotion she is capable of is somehow diluted by the production.

But as I write this and the album plays, there, nestling right at the end of the album is the killer song, ‘History Boys’.  This simple piano ballad tells of mothers awaiting the return of their dead soldier sons in the streets of the military town of Wootton Bassett in SW England and it is heart-breaking.  Sung at the top of Nerina’s vocal range, the melody glides over a piano and string waltz (rather than a military march) perhaps to indicate the strength of love over war?   The song was composed whilst Nerina was pregnant and the poignancy of the lines in the second verse are almost too much to bear.  She has admitted that this song is very difficult for her to sing as her anger and sadness spill over:
One day I'll have a child of my own
How will I tell him, oh
This world, this world it is a good place?
How will I hide the fear from my face?
Suddenly my qualms about the rest of the album pale into insignificance as ‘History Boys’ plays out and I have a tear in my eye, I realise that this could be Pallot’s finest moment, worth the price of the album on its own.

Here is an even better version with just voice and piano.  Without any distracting production it is quite devastating and is what Nerina Pallot does best.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Andrew Gold 1951 - 2011

I note with increasing sadness the loss of yet more members of the music community, the latest being Andrew Gold who died from a heart attack on June 3rd at the age of 59.  I am beginning to find all these deaths a bit alarming, especially as I am not that far short of 60 myself.  It’s all a bit sobering.  Regrettably, I admit to not really being much of a fan of Mr Gold’s work either on his own or as ‘Wax’ with Graham Gouldman, but that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t carved a small area in my life for himself.

Like most other people, I’d guess, I know him best for his 1977 hit, ‘Lonely Boy’ and it is a song that has grown with me over these last 30-odd years.  At the time of its release I was totally immersed in Punk and didn’t pay it much attention, but since then it has loomed larger and larger in my mind so that today it is probably one of my favourite singles.

Let me try and explain why.  Songs have different hooks.  Sometimes it’s the lyric, most times it is the chorus and other times it’s some other aspect or combination.  Some songs, like much of the Cardigan’s output for some impenetrable Scandinavian reason, have musically stunning verses which then makes the chorus a bit ho-hum.  In that case the verse is a strong enough hook to draw you in.  The real lyricists like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan can often hold your attention without a decent melody at all but this is very rare and shouldn’t be relied on if you are just starting out as a song writer.  Most song writers fall over themselves to produce a hook-laden chorus – listen to any current Lady Gaga song to see how this works as she is no slouch in this department.  Most memorable songs have their best hook in the chorus – but not ‘Lonely Boy’.

For me, the real hook in ‘Lonely Boy' lies in the combination of the tragic lyric and the musical bridge between the verse and the chorus.  The verse starts in jaunty vein:
He was born on a summer day, 1951
And with the slap of a hand
He had landed as an only son

But then the rhythm changes and the mood gets just a little darker.  This is the part that gives me goose bumps as the repeated melody winds up the sense of foreboding and understated guitar figures play with your heart:
His mother and father said "what a lovely boy"
We'll teach him what we learned
Ah yes, just what we learned
We'll dress him up warmly and
We'll send him to school
It'll teach him how to fight
To be nobody's fool

And so into the chorus:
Oh, oh, what a lonely boy etc.

That extended bridge section is a masterpiece all on its own.  The way that it builds both the story lyric and the musical tension from the verse to the cry of pain that is the chorus is awe-inspiring.  Unless you are Paul McCartney, most song writers probably manage something of this class once in a lifetime.  This was Andrew’s moment.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Cee Lo Green

No doubt you will all be relieved to hear that I have now fully recovered from my attack of Dad’s Disease after watching episode two of Later…with Jools Holland where Cee Lo Green powered his way through a set of three songs that, by the finale, had both audience and guests (including Bootsy Collins) dancing in the aisles.

His blend of power rock and old-time Motown soul was just the ticket for my somewhat jaded palette.  In fact I’ve been a bit remiss here and failed to pick him up through the Gnarls Barkley and earlier solo career but I shall definitely be checking out his last album ‘The Lady Killer’ and his back catalogue without delay.

However, it wasn’t just the quality of music that piqued my interest, it was the band configuration.  As I am sure you all know by now, I favour female singers and my preferred band set up is a batch of male instrumentalists fronted by a female singer.  This just works for me as it has all the advantages of male aggression in the musical presentation, melded with the sensitivity of a woman in the vocal department.  Over the years I have collected dozens of these bands from my first love, Curved Air in the 1970s, through Siouxsie and the Banshees, Blondie, Dubstar and Lush to Garbage and beyond to name but a very, very few.

But the musical force that is Cee Lo Green does it differently.  His idea is to back himself with a self-contained female band, Scarlet Fever, comprising Sharon Aguila (guitar), Brittany Brooks (drums), Theresa Flaminio (keyboards) and Regina Zernay Roberts (bass).  Their brand of soul infused stadium rock suits Cee Lo to a tee and it is heart-warming to see ‘proper’ instruments in a live environment.  Oh dear, am I sounding old?

Of course, many of you will remember Robert Palmer’s video for ‘Addicted To Love’ in which he pulls the same gender-reversal trick but in that instance he was using models (in case you hadn’t spotted that…) rather than real musicians.  Despite being put together through audition, Scarlet Fever is a proper band and they rock.  I can’t think of another example of a male fronted female band off the top of my head, although I have vague thoughts of Prince doing something similar so this may not be the first of its kind.  But if the Cee Lo Green experience is anything to go by, there should be more.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Song Writing

Once upon a time it was all so easy.  Writers of popular songs would sit in a small bare room with a thermos and a piano and toil relentlessly until they had a half decent song and then their agent would sell it to a suitable performer.  Writers seldom performed and conversely, performers virtually never wrote.  Everybody knew where they stood and more importantly, writers, having a target audience in mind, would tailor their songs to fit the performer.

This cosy and ordered world was upset firstly by the early rock ‘n’ rollers who often liked to have a hand in their own material, but more particularly by The Beatles who insisted on writing their own material and, what’s worse, tended to be quite good at it thus putting out of work a whole generation of writers.  Their endeavours upset the apple cart of A&R and from then on artists felt duty bound to write their own material for better or worse.

This alternative universe was therefore peopled by bands and artists who wrote to their own strengths and the once noble art of writing specifically for someone with a different style to your own was submerged in the rush to make yourself into a pop star.  But there were exceptions.  The Beatles themselves occasionally wrote songs for others (Mary Hopkin, Cilla Black and so on) and Rod Argent, whilst with The Zombies wrote the magnificent ‘If it Don’t Work Out’ for Dusty Springfield.  The latter song is a really good example of a writer working outside of his own band’s remit to create a creditable Dusty-type ballad.

Bringing this line of thought up to date, current singer-songwriter Nerina Pallot, an artist who has never written anything other than for herself, was approached last year to write songs for Kylie Minogue’s’ last album and turned out a couple of classic Kylie style pop songs.  Check out ‘Better Than Today’ and the title track ‘Aphrodite’.

But here’s the rub.  Should these writers be deliberately writing in the style of the performer, thus perpetuating their perceived style or should they be writing in their own style in order to broaden the horizons of the performer.  Bit of a tricky one that, especially as there is money and reputation at stake.  Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that by pandering to a ‘house style’ the writer is not doing themselves or the recipient of the song any real good. The songs that Pallot has given to Kylie are a bit Kylie-by-numbers and by her standards are a little, well, sub-standard.  Why not get Kylie just to cover some of her better songs even though they are not tailored to style?