Hackney-born 25-year-old singer Paloma Faith has been collecting critical acclaim throughout 2009, and it’s easy to see why. Her songs shine with soulful pop perfection and the unmistakable stamp of her inimitable persona. She draws on influences as diverse as Billie Holiday, Etta James, P J Harvey and Edith Piaf. Like her music, Paloma’s story never fails to thrill. In the lead up to her becoming a singer, she has been a magician’s assistant, trained contemporary dancer, St. Martin’s alumni with an MA in theatre direction, a performer in burlesque shows, and an actress. Paloma wrote her debut album in the UK, Sweden and America and recorded it entirely in London. The album features writing collaborations with Ed Harcourt, Jodi Marr (Mika), Greg Kurstin (Lily Allen, Kylie), Steve Robson (Take That) and Jorgen Elofsson.
In the three years since Amy Winehouse’s phenomenally successful Back to Black, the UK charts have been assaulted by an array of soulful starlets chasing a little of the beehive-topped singer’s limelight. Some have been welcomed, some not – here is not the place to name names. Instead, we celebrate the best artist yet in this post-Amy (and Blake, and everything else) field: Paloma Faith.
A native of Hackney, Faith arrives with some fantastically quirky baggage – she’s got a degree in theatre direction, worked as a burlesque dancer not so many moons ago, and is soon to appear in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus after a turn in 2007’s St Trinian’s. It’s easy to be blinded by the girl’s CV, but it soon fades to circumstantial importance once the highlights of this debut album embed themselves in the listener’s head.
Faith’s voice is the first element of these sumptuous arrangements to strike, its idiosyncratic ticks and sharp inflections separating her from the pack in the same way as Duffy – but while the Welsh star's vocals can lack a sincere conveyance of the emotions behind a song, Faith’s sentiments are never in doubt, even on the surprisingly underwhelming (in context) singles Stone Cold Sober and New York. The former sounds designed to soundtrack an advertisement – successfully, as it turns out – and the latter’s lamenting loses some of its edge when one’s unsure if the New York in question is a rival lover or, literally, the city that never sleeps. Whichever it is, it’s stolen our protagonist’s lover away.
Better is the Salt-N-Pepa-recalling Smoke and Mirrors – it’s all in the “ooh-ahh”s – which brings a greater degree of sultry attitude to the fore, and showcases Faith’s neat wordplay – the cadence of her language is intermittently intoxicating in its breathlessness. Broken Doll plays rather too basic an analogy – “I’m a broken doll / and you’re the puppeteer” – but is retrieved from a descent into schmaltz by a cracking Bond-theme-worthy strings flourish in its final third. My Legs Are Weak is an accomplishedly bruised torch song of elegant melodrama, and Play On’s harpsichord stabs and dub-savvy percussion make for a sprightly rendering of elegiac expression.
Perhaps she’s playing up, acting out the role of a superlative pop-soul singer – but whether the lines are predetermined or not, one can’t find much fault with Paloma Faith’s performance here. --Mike Diver
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