Brave lady, Nerina Pallot. Choosing to work with Duffy producer Bernard Butler for similarly 60s-slanted, Motown-referencing pop can’t fail to raise comparisons and expectations. And given Duffy moved on to another sound/producer with diminishing returns, there’s the chance someone will think Butler was the X factor in that relationship. But Pallot is a lot more experienced and tenacious than Duffy (she’d have to be to contend with Butler’s hands-on approach). She’s survived major label shenanigans, releasing her second album Fires independently despite having hits while on Warners (she’s now signed to Geffen). And she writes, or co-writes, all her own songs; although interestingly there’s not a single Butler co-write here. We’re talking services-to-the-stars songcraft here.
The opening Put Your Hands Up, for example, was originally intended for Kylie Minogue (Pallot’s got credits on Aphrodite). But it wouldn’t sound this way if it had reached Kylie. This version is initially restrained, subtly lifted by those keening, Butler-patented strings; but 70 seconds in, it unexpectedly kicks in at twice the volume and energy, with Butler’s guitar pushed up behind the beat and the auto-suggestion of liberation. It’s a masterstroke, to add to the song’s already inch-perfect flow. Compare that to her last album, 2009’s The Graduate, whose electronic sheen lacked direction and identity (did she want to be Kylie-meets-Alanis? Probably not). Brought on board by Pallot’s love of The Sound of McAlmont & Butler, our Bernard knows how to make a song swing and his guitar always responds to Pallot’s nimble touch – check the zippy solo that briefly pops out of Turn Me on Again.
Even when Pallot plays with pop conventions, she’s never flash or crass. If I Lost You Now’s jazzy MOR chords have the classy hallmark of Hall & Oates, and This Will Be Our Year isn’t far behind Raphael Saadiq’s current 60s-black-hall-of-fame love fest. But the album’s second half shows Pallot can be hemmed in by pop convention, when she should be breaking out. The hushed piano-ballad finale History Boys (written when pregnant, amid reports of child casualties of war) is a beauty, but the likes of I Think fall into that grey zone between rock and pop. Still, Year of the Wolf could be a commercial monster to match Duffy’s if led by the right singles (Put Your Hands Up is first). But assuming she wants it, Pallot won’t make the same giddy impact until she truly embraces her inner bravery.
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