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I first heard Nerina Pallot sing in 2005 and I can still recall it was on Radio 2 and the song was "All Good People". I did a little digging and discovered she was born in London, raised in Jersey and was inspired musically by Kate Bush. Her 2005 album "Fires" received heavy airplay and I loved every single that was released from it, especially the hauntingly beautiful "Sophia". Pallot followed up "Fires" somewhat belatedly in 2009 with "The Graduate" and I am afraid to say every track I heard from it left me feeling underwhelmed and wondering what had happened to the singer songwriter who had seemingly been on a roll with "Fires".
Pallot returned last year with her fourth album, entitled "Year of the Wolf". The title references her son, Wolfie as the year she spent creating and recording the album coincided with her pregnancy with him and his birth.
There seems to be a never ending steam of British female singers who write songs - although let's be honest here - many of them aren't true songwriters insofar as they can only come up with the goods in collaboration with someone more musically gifted than they are. Yes, I am talking about Adele and Duffy here. Pallot isn't like that - she plays piano and guitar and writes the vast majority of her songs herself. My concern when I read about "Year of the Wolf" prior to release was the fact Pallot had chosen Bernard Butler to produce.
Butler was the producer of Duffy's mega selling debut "Rockferry" and he did a marvellous job on that album. I've long been a huge fan of the work he did with David McAlmont as McAlmont & Butler but worried that he would perhaps infuse too much of that old 60s sound into Pallot's album making her blend into a rather crowded marketplace.
~~The Sound of Pallot~~
Nerina Pallot has a distinctive sultry voice. She can hit the high notes if she wants to but generally her voice stays at the alto end of the spectrum. Adding to the sultriness in her voice is a sweetness of tone which is lovely and doesn't grate.
Her previous work has tended to be more based around her piano playing and production has focused primarily on her voice without too much in the way of added production values. With the addition of Butler twirling the knobs, that has changed slightly.
Pallot recently spent some time writing songs for Kylie Minogue's "Aphrodite" album, including the single "Better Than Today" which was one of those infuriatingly catchy pop songs you struggle to get out of your head. She's also recorded a rather cool cover version of Kylie's "Confide in Me".
~~Year of the Wolf~~
Pallot has said she chose Butler to work with not because of the success he achieved with Duffy but because - like me - she loved the work he did with David McAlmont. That tended to be heavily inspired by the 1960s Motown sound and while there's a touch of it here, Butler has smartly realised Pallot's voice and songwriting style doesn't always match up with that sound.
Opening track "Put Your Hands Up" is a perfectly crafted pop song and not something I would have originally expected of Pallot. She wrote the song with the Kylie Minogue album in mind but wisely held this song back for herself and in Butler's hands it starts off sultry and slow, with a first chorus which is understated and a second verse which really allows the song to kick in and progress to a frenzied conclusion. Butler's guitar playing is effective but what I really love about the arrangement is the use of strings in the chorus - a nod back to the early 60s but bang up to date too.
"Turn Me on Again" keeps that guitar sound and the strings make an appearance but they are nowhere near as effective on a song which sings about animal lust in a strangely unerotic manner with only Butler's guitar on the bridge giving the song anything like the sensuality it needs. "All Bets Are Off", which is a melancholy song of love and regret is far, far better and Pallot's voice is far more convincing here. The song ends with a solo harp coda which is quite possibly one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard and fuses perfectly with the song - acting almost as an aural eulogy for it.
The clever progression Butler uses in the opening track is repeated on "If I Lost You Now" with the song working its way to a crescendo steadily. The arrangement is a simple guitar - played by Pallot herself - with the vocals being the star of the show here. Pallot's questioning in the lyrics peaks before the final verse, with Butler ending the song as it began, in quiet contemplation. The guitar playing is lovely on this song - it reminds me very much of some of the earlier Everything but the Girl tracks with definite hints of Tracey Thorn.
Butler gets back to business on "Butterfly" with slicker guitar playing (from Butler) and pounding drumbeat to give the song a radio friendly sound. Pallot's vocals are paradoxically both detached and soulful on this song and it's got "single" stamped all over it.
The only song which really gives a blatant nod to neo soul is This Will Be Our Year but even then it's Pallot's vocals which are the most soulful instrument here. The addition of a brass section takes the listener back to some Stax tracks from the sixties and is an inspired arrangement, producing the best ballad on the album.
Unfortunately the second half of the album isn't quite as strong, with "I Think" seemingly pinching the brass band drum sound from Blue Mink's "Banner Man" and "Grace" sounding remarkably similar to Billy Joel's "Always a Woman" in places. This song also is rather introspective, a trait Pallot strays into with "Will You Still Love Me". Pallot is at her most introspective with closing track "History Boys" which returns to her anti-war stance from 2005's "Everybody's Gone to War". The song quietly and slowly ponders the loss of life she views as meaningless from war. Pallot herself has said that her anger over these losses has subsided to sadness and you can hear that in the song - a slow, poignant lament.
"Year of the Wolf" isn't a brilliant album but it is overall a good one. The second half isn't as good as the first but that's not to say it's awful - it's just got a lot to live up to and I also think it's fair to say that if you listen to Nerina Pallot purely for the voice her vocals are top notch throughout the album.
So while" History Boys" is a bit on the heavy side for me there's no denying it's a beautifully written and performed song, with the undoubted sincerity of Pallot's vocals shining through. For me however she works best on songs with a slightly more commercial sound, and there's a sense there may have been a slight battle of wills between Pallot and Butler in the studio, with the stronger first half of the album being those where Butler won the war.
That's pure conjecture on my part however but I can say that Butler's stamp shows particularly on "Put Your Hands Up" and "This Will Be Our Year" and they just happen to be amongst the strongest songs on the album.
Overall this is a strong set from Nerina Pallot but I fear that once again commercial success will elude her purely because she doesn't seem to be able to find a genre and sink comfortably into it in the way Adele has done which is a shame because technically she is a far more gifted singer and songwriter.