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A promise of great things to come
on 8 June 2006
There's an intriguing little footnote at the bottom of the sleeve notes to Nerina Pallot's debut album. It's a Bible reference that directs the reader to Mark 8:36 - "What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?" That question seems to underlie most of the material on "Dear Frustrated Superstar" - not just explicitly, as in the title track, but as Nerina herself explores her life and seems to question whether it's possible for her to maintain her own integrity as a major recording artist. In some ways there's a special irony to the question as her debut album caused barely a raised eyebrow when it arrived on the scene in 2001. Credible female singer-songwriters were hardly the vogue in a time when the dominant market forces in pop music were reality TV shows and Westlife (indeed, Natalie Imbruglia's "White Lilies Island", the album to which this most closely compares, fell on equally deaf ears at the same time).
It may have been a result of market forces, or simply the fact that this is a debut album from a young songwriter, but the distinctive Nerina Pallot sound (brilliantly captured on 2005 follow-up "Fires") takes awhile to establish itself. You could almost be forgiven for listening to the first five tracks and dismissing the album as another country-rock-lite collection in the Sheryl Crow vein. But there are a few sparks of something bigger, better: the piano accompaniment on "If I Know You" is sparkly and remarkably sophisticated, and "Watch Out Billie" has one of the most infuriatingly catchy choruses around, even if it does sound spookily like a long-lost Kirsty MacColl track.
Somewhere around "Rainbow", "Alien" and "Jump", however, the album moves up several notches in sophistication. Suddenly, Nerina seems to find a distinctive voice and the courage of her convictions. The resulting songs are tenfold more beautiful, more original, and more outspoken. Here is somebody who not only writes and performs delightful tunes, but who has a critical eye turned to the foibles of herself, her friends and her society. "Alien" joyously affirms the spirit of society's misfits; "Jump", beneath a beguiling melody, gives a scathing critique of the search for love in the 21st century; and "Very Good Sir" allows a little glimpse of Nerina's own hopes and dreams, with a chorus that just seems to grow in intensity and sparkle on every listen. From here, there really isn't a bad track on the album. Nerina's piano playing is augmented by some delightful orchestration, and her voice flits effortlessly from almost girlish innocence to cynical irony without apparent contradiction. Everything is fresh, and a delight to listen to.
The album reaches an emotional peak with the exhilarating "Blood is Blood". A song dedicated to a fairy, but with possibly the biggest sing-along chorus of Nerina's career so far. "God" inevitably invokes comparisons with the Tori Amos song of the same name; this track is less subversive, less disillusioned, and shows a searching soul, someone who wants to believe and is determined to do so, whatever life may throw at her. And "My Last Tango" is simply unique, ranging from a plaintive single voice to the full glory of a Romantic piano concerto in no more time than the average pop song. There's poetry here as well as an entrancing melody, and a sure sign that there are still greater things to come from this captivating songwriter.