The Hold Tight/We Should Break Up EP
Nerina Pallot is a self-confessed faffer, but has committed to releasing one EP a month for 2014. In the film released to promote this ground-breaking project, she hints that in the past she has written-off, and not released, entire albums in order to go in another direction, and here, to keep up the quality of the EPs she is putting out, will have to write over and above what we end up hearing. That, my friends, is a lot of song-writing in one year and a brave proposition.
In fact Nerina Pallot has a history of taking risks in the name of music — she re-mortgaged her house to finish off second album Fires, having been dropped by Polydor. The gamble paid off with a hit, “Everybody’s Gone to War”, and she was welcomed back to the majors, hopefully on her own terms.
The EPs though are being released through Pallot’s own independent label, Idaho, and will no doubt give her the complete freedom to put out what she thinks should be delivered.
The Hold Tight is EP number one and a good start; Pallot clearly has a strong ear for melody. “This Year’s Model” is catchy and upbeat with a driving chorus. Perhaps because this is “pop” music, there’s a risk of rock fans writing Pallot off. However the unexpected moments – the singer’s unusual pronunciation of words, shifts in tempo and style, combined with excellent production should keep most listeners engaged. “Hard Equation” is a sexy disco freak-out with a sense of humour, throw-away, but worth repeated listening. “The Hold Tight” is a ballad and shows off Pallot as a pianist and vocalist, with interesting percussion and instrumental breaks. “Closer” zones in on the sense of anticipation of physical contact through the witty naughtiness of the delivery. “Get To Feel” leans towards dark progressive chords, which may not be to everyone’s tastes. But so what? This is kind of the point of the experiment.
EP two, We Should Break Up wears its heart on its sleeve with the letters of the title brightly spelt out on the cover. “Dead to Me” and the title song are close to the bone and in your face, songs about ending it, chucking it in, flying the coup. The former is an exercise in catchy venom whilst “We Should Break Up” explores the problems of still being attracted to someone who’s not a good match. “Thicker Than Blood” is a very impressive radio-friendly track with a charmingly loose vocal. Combined with the previous two songs, you could justifiably make the claim that Pallot is a one woman pop jukebox.
“Happy” is unexpected, far from the idea on Pharrell Williams’ single — on the face of it, the nature of the chorus should mean the song is all about the joy of being together, but because it’s sung ambiguously it turns out to be a more considered piece about getting through the routines of life. Somehow a lot is squeezed in to a relatively short song — it’s an artfully condensed narrative. Finally, “Don’t Be Late” gives us a light and frothy jazz performance in which serious musical chops are displayed.
For those who are willing to take a bet on a work in progress (and couldn’t you say that about all of us?), it’s possible to sign up to a full subscription service on Pallot’s website. You just pay the money and wait for the next EP to appear through your letterbox. Alternatively you can buy them one by one. As one of the songs says, you only fail if you never try.
When the Morning Stars Sang Together/Free As You Wanna Be EP
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Nerina Pallot’s third EP this year, When The Morning Stars Sang Together, has some dark, hip programming, but somehow it is. This is probably because despite having guested for Delirium early in her career, her albums have tended to be straight-ahead accessible and melodic. But there’s always been a cheeky sense of humour evident in the background, particularly on Pallot’s 2009 album The Graduate. The modernistic approach here is playful and fun, with some quirky drumming in unexpected places. So in the scheme of things whilst this could be considered a slightly different approach, it doesn’t appear forced.
The first song “That’s Really Something” starts in more traditional territory – an uplifting sing-a-long track with a Steely Dan flavour and beautifully double-tracked Laurel Canyon vocals. Things start to get a little more experimental with “Ain’t Got Anything Left” – after the slow spooky humming at the beginning, the fantastic rhythmic drum work courtesy of Lewis Wright leaps out to startling effect. “No Harm Done” also has great drumming, and the vocals are pushed to an industrial level of distortion. “Nervous” contains post-apocalyptical backing and deep piano chords, so powerfully hypnotic you have to wonder whether Pallot is considering joining a cult of some sort. The singer describes the effect of someone making her nervous despite having “done nothing wrong”, evoking, I think, what can be the powerlessness of being a child in an adult world. “Sorriest MF In Town” comes with an explicit lyrics warning, but it’s not a bad-tempered rap song. Instead this is a light jazz shuffle, contemptuous of good weather because a beloved is elsewhere. It’s as fluffy as the white clouds in the dreaded blue sky.
EP4, Free As You Wanna Be is equally surprising, this time not because of the music but due to the originality of the ideas contained in the songs. The word that sticks out immediately is “oxymoron”, which Pallot casually slips in to the lyrics of “Free as You Wanna Be”, kind of a peace-and-love song about waking up to new ideas. The following “Free Man” is more striking due to the level of attack brought to it and the unusual nature of the narrative, describing a relationship in which neither individual falls for others or become another’s victim. The song is addressed from a very determined woman to a presumably equally determined man, and is full of swagger and dark echo. Its individuality is exciting and impressive, and Pallot has found a subject that has rarely been written about before.
“Love Is Blind” is a funky disco work-out with some great guitar work. Pallot has previously written for Kylie, and this track is one you could imagine the clubbing queen covering. “Never Had a Single Original Thought” is far from what the title suggests, i.e. it’s not a downbeat vengeful rant but instead a classy soul number. It comes across as a purposeful piece of stylised writing, and it’s fresh and appealing. The last track is probably the most dispensable, “Happy Birthday to Me” – practically an acoustic demo, but with its own charm, bare and intimate.
With the EPs released so far, four in four months, Pallot has proven that she is a prolific, and more importantly, consistent songwriter. In a different time she probably would have been beavering away in the Brill Building and her songs performed by the next craze to hit the charts. But this year we’re lucky enough to be able to witness Pallot herself working out the direction she wants to take, for her own career, and this series of EPS continues to remain highly recommended.
Nerina Pallot: Grand Union/When I Grow Up
The back cover of Nerina Pallot’s Grand Union EP states “5/12”, often the score I got for math tests at school, but here to denote that this is EP number five out of 12. It’s often said that math and music are closely related, but sometimes it’s difficult to understand this in the context of contemporary music. In the case of Nerina Pallot it’s easy to make this connection though. Her music is chromatic, not so much play by numbers as using music to paint with words. She has a classical pianist’s training and a degree in literature which may explain this, or maybe she is just naturally adept at what she does.
But it’s almost certainly not just talent that has helped Pallot with her career. “If I Had a Girl” demonstrates her sheer determination as she imagines being a temporary boy in a man’s world. It’s a driving and attractive feminist anthem for girl power, with a healthy dose of wit — consider “you go to school and they tell us that we’re equal / but really it’s just half the people.” Pallot references page three of the Sun newspaper (which for non-UK readers, features semi-naked women) and tells us she has only just started. Girl power indeed; the recording contains the type of energy which would knock most men and women off their feet.
“I’m Gonna Be Your Man” continues in the same thematic vein, detailing Sister Rose and Sister Kate’s girl-on-girl exploits. It’s got a catchy ‘70s chorus and could be a hit if released as a single. “Boy on the Bus” is a cry-a-long song about a boy on the bus “with a startled face, delicate hands at a difficult age / clutching so hard on a plastic bag.” As the song continues, the drama increases, and the vocal excels in its range and expression of empathy.
“Heidi” is a long way away from the TV series of the same name, as Pallot considers what she’d do if she had a gun, and thanking god she is not like whoever Heidi is. Pallot’s voice is at the peak of sweetness despite the somewhat bitter sentiment. “Men Are Not From Mars” puts Pallot’s feminism in context by debunking the idea that men and women are a different species. I tend to agree. For those struggling with the opposite sex, it contains the sensible advice to not completely give up.
When I Grow Up, is without doubt the biggest stylistic departure from Pallot’s usual output. All the tracks, from start to finish, are disco/club/dance material, and as an EP in the series it may cause the most consternation among Pallot fans. “One Foot Forward” starts off like an ABBA track and continues like one, uptempo with ‘70s synths. “Simple Life” heads toward funky Chic territory with some zippy guitar by Carlos Garcia; a clubby masterpiece. “Love Electric” is catchy Euro pop, “Let Your Love Come Down” pure pop and “Cool Black Leather” space-age electro pop. Pallot manages all of this without any mawkishness, in an entirely classy way.
In its entirety this is “going-out” music, and its sequencing could suggest the musical arc of pop music during Pallot’s formative years, starting out with the early ‘70s deep grove of disco, to mid-’70s funk, to late ‘70s pop, to early ‘80s electro. If Pallot fans are put off by this latest development, at least she thoughtfully put this out as one EP so it could, in theory, be skipped. Equally, if dance music is your kind of thing, here it is as a standalone release. Some pop music was designed to simply be for dancing and pulling shapes out on the town, so if you listen to this at home you can practice your moves in the mirror. For some of us that’s probably where the moves should stay.
Nerina Pallot: Rousseau/Little Bull
These are the seventh and eighth EPs of 2014 from Nerina Pallot, and by this stage of the game there’s a possibility that Pallot, the listener and/or the reviewer could be getting fatigued or delirious with the amount of respective work/listening/writing that is required. Like I don’t want to bring you down man, or start off with the wrong attitude, but the possibility exists.
According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau we are born twice, “once to exist and again to live; once as to species and again as regards to sex”. Ambitiously, Pallot takes this idea on in the title track to EP seven, convinced that the French philosopher is following her around the city streets like a weird stalker. The music is beautifully ambient, as Pallot wonders whether we are born free or have to be born again. The song grapples with the ritual passage of adolescence, of gaining self-consciousness, and developing from nature to a sense of adult city claustrophobia. Evoking the spirit of Rousseau is clever, and it’s perhaps an academic point that the reference to becoming a “noble savage” is erroneous; supposedly, Rousseau never used those words.
“Blessed” also has a literary influence, starting with a quote from T.S. Eliot, “April is the cruellest month.” Spring, apparently, is a downer because it can lead to hope, and the awful possibility that something good could be just around the corner. On the face of it, this song is truly miserable, with an emphasis on ships not coming in. However it transforms itself at the chorus, as Pallot tell us that those who lose it all, or give and get nothing back, are in fact blessed.
Pallot is certainly in philosophical form, and she goes on to provide wise counsel like a favourite big sister in the ballad “Time Won’t Wait”: “Mo one who ever knew love/ Wanted to play it too cool/ If it’s real, then it’s real/ Then why not, you’ve got nothing to lose.” After this focus on ideas, “The Longest Memory” and “Lost” change tack, with music more at the forefront. Pallot’s previous EP When I Grow Up went off on a stylistic excursion to club-land, and these last two tracks have hints of some wild years. “The Longest Memory” is like a tripped-out come-down trip to Ibiza’s Café del Mar and “Lost” a slow, idyllic retreat into sleepy introspection.
EP eight, Little Bull, is a mixed affair. “I Saw the Light” is an atmospheric, cinematic piece with elegant orchestration. The title track has a dramatic chorus and some spectacular piano chords, with a vocal at times reminiscent of Kate Bush. “Million to One” is a radio-friendly vote for optimism, possibly Pallot at her most commercial, adopting an adult-orientated American voice. It’s catchy and upbeat.
“Where Is My Friend?” is altogether a more difficult proposition because of the subject—essentially the frustration of not being able to get hold of someone. It has a terrifically twangy bass, but the lyrics struggle. Admittedly it can be a worry not being able to contact someone or failing to receive a response when you’re expecting it, but it’s doubtful whether the idea merits a song. It turns into a semi-rant about getting dumped by a friend, but the concept is not fully explored; as a result the track feels half-finished, and it should have probably stayed in the vaults. “Happy Day” is better: a shuffling, American spiritual, with some great communal singing.
Releasing 12 EPs in one year undoubtedly entails a certain amount of risk-taking due to what must be incredible time pressure. So far, in my opinion, there’s only been one misfire (and this was not a whole EP, just a song), which in the bigger scheme of things is remarkable. It’s difficult to complain about the overall standard of writing and production, and with only four EPs to go, Pallot is surely on the home stretch.
Nerina Pallot: Small Things/Spirit Walks
In the space of a year, Nerina Pallot will have more than doubled her catalogue of songs through the release of her 2014 EPs. For all you statisticians out there, her four albums in the nine years from debut Dear Frustrated Superstar to last album Year of the Wolf yielded approximately 45 songs (not counting b-sides to singles, songs given to other artists or other side projects). This year there’ll probably be an additional 60 songs or so spread out over 12 discs or downloads, a dramatic increase to her overall repertoire.
Small Things is EP nine, and it’s a delight. A friend in need is a friend indeed (or a pest, depending on your viewpoint), and “Count On Me” is a rousing hymn to dependability with some edgy guitar playing by Tim Van der Kuil and Luke Potashick. “Stand Up” is also upbeat, with some humorous lyrics about “manning up”, and only being right 99 per-cent of the time. “Small Things” is saved from the whimsy of references to Sellotape and John Travolta by a huge vocal. “Lay Down With Me” is hip and clubby, the most commercial track on the CD, co-written with producer and husband Andy Chatterley. Closer “Feels Like Home” is nice enough, gentle, chilled-out and relaxed, just as you would hope a home would be.
As we take a break between EPs, imagine a dedicated army of elves packing-up these CDs every month and sending them around the world. Elves or not, this project has a sharp level of detail to it; each CD has new art for the cover (for Small Things there is an emphasis on bright green, but Spirit Walks is ominously black), and each CD arrives in an envelope with a label sometimes customised in line with the cover art. A completist could well end up keeping the labels (and Pallot fans on occasion seem to be very serious about their calling), but at the risk of offending the retentive, this may well be a kind of creepy thing to do.
Back to the music itself, and Spirit Walks starts in opposing fashion, because the title track is about being uninspired. Taking stock of nature, this song uses pathetic fallacy with a shuffling rhythm to reflect a flat state of mind. It’s interesting mainly because of the studio presentation. “Not Over You (2014)” re-visits a song from a 2013 EP, Lonely Valentine Club, which is not part of this project. For this new version, the recording has a hip back-beat. “Handle” is despondent, rock bottom, with prominent piano, as Pallot recites “tell me things are going to get better” in almost desperate prayer. “You and I” is not a world away from the Wilco song of the same title, in that it’s about blocking out all the external distractions in a relationship (“You and I were made for more”). The song is probably the best one on the EP. The final track, “If This Ain’t Real” is a minimalist and spacey meditation. Both this and “Spirit Walks” are determinedly modernist, and are again both co-written with Andy Chatterley.
So these sequential EPs are quite different propositions; both are good listens, with number nine full of positivity and the 10th exploring a thoroughly downward trajectory. With two EPs left to release before the end of the year, this project looks close to successful completion, but it may only be some time later we can begin to fully appreciate the achievement.
Nerina Pallot: Live From Union Chapel/Winter Rooms
Nerina Pallot’s most well-known song, “Everybody’s Gone to War”, only reached number 88 on the UK airplay chart when first released in 2005. Two more singles from second album Fires faltered, but Pallot then signed to 14th Floor Records, and the album was remixed and re-issued, as was the first single. As a testament to perseverance and additional promotion, the track hit number three second time around and Pallot appeared on Top of the Pops, the UK’s then leading music television programme. With dismal thinking, it’s a possibility that, ten years and two albums on, Pallot will not grace the high end of the pop charts again; hit records seem to be a matter of luck, being in the right place at the right time, and novelty acts seem to have more of a chance of stealing the limelight. But to use one more cliché, you have to be in it to win it, and Pallot has certainly written enough as a result of her 2014 EP project to endear the gods of good fortune.
“Everybody’s Gone to War” is here on Live from Union Chapel (EP 11 out of 12), in a new strings-only arrangement. It’s remarkably different from the previous somewhat clattering electric versions, but this means that the anti-war message is emphasized. “Buckminster Fuller”, the title track of a 2009 EP, is also played live and is similarly sparse, but accentuated with added female backing vocals. It runs immediately into the optimistic AOR of “This Will Be Our Year” (from album Year of the Wolf), which is smoothly chilled-out. “Sophia” is taken solo at the piano and shows off Pallot’s debt to Kate Bush; “Moments of Pleasure” is next, and turns out to be a cover of a Kate Bush song. It’s well treated by Pallot, with a sensuous vocal and warm backing. Overall the five tracks on the EP (recorded in October 2014) are a good representation of Pallot’s ability for live performance.
Winter Rooms is an altogether different proposition. This final EP, for now anyway, is made up entirely of new studio tracks, themed, as the title suggests, to winter. The British love talking about the weather, probably because on the whole it’s fairly dreadful. “Heaven Helped Us” implores the listener to make the best of life, but despite a sentiment of “mortal hope” the arrangement implies a wintery outlook. “Cold Room” suggests a swirl of inclement conditions outside, with Pallot’s intimate vocal providing a distinctive contrast. “‘Tis the Season” heads towards the more upbeat with some old-fashioned Christmas jazz merriment. “Mary’s Song (How Dark the Night)” is, I think, something, like a re-imagining of the Christmas story.
“In the Winter” could be Britpop crossed with Nirvana, and it’s an interesting experiment with what seem to be obscure lyrics (“who goes downstairs in the winter?”). It’s catchy and a fun close to the end of the EP and the project.
Release Date: Various 2014
FIRST PUBLISHED POPMATTERS 2014