Nerina Pallot at Cornbury music festival (Photo by Steve Jones)
You’d think that after the Beatles we Americans would pay attention when someone starts making wonderful sounds across the pond. Not so.
Nerina Pallot (pronounced with a silent T) has been a star in the UK for the last ten years. She’s virtually unknown here. It took the British blogger Martin Warminger, the Music Obsessive
, to alert me to her. I’m buying him a pint or two if I ever get back to London.
Since the summer I’ve been listening to her three albums – Dear Frustrated Superstar, Fires and The Graduate –over and over. That’s because they have the quality of all great music, which is that each listening reveals new gems.
I rarely find myself at a loss for words, but have struggled to write about Nerina. I think it’s because her voice and songs are so original, and speak for themselves so well – one song being worth more than these thousand words.
Perhaps a way to start talking about her is to invoke the goddess who came before her and every woman singer of the last fifty years –Joni Mitchell. Not because Nerina sounds like Joni. But because her songs, like Joni’s, bravely venture into the still untapped region between art songs and pop. Nerina’s lyrics are intelligent. Her tunes are light years beyond three-chord rock, benefiting from a large palette enriched by classical music, like Joni’s. They both play guitar and piano.
Their voices both encompass extraordinary range – not just in pitch, but in emotional tone and style. Both voices seem somehow perfectly married to the difficult, wonderful songs their authors require them to sing. And those voices share a trait which has sadly been in short supply in recent decades – warmth, which radiates from a big heart, a generous spirit. Starting with Mariah Carey, or perhaps even Whitney Houston, female voices have assumed an icy quality. This is because they misunderstand the nature of their gift. They believe their purpose in singing like birds is to become divas, to be loved by the public and to love themselves in the mirror of that acclaim.
Nerina understands that the purpose of her gift is for it be passed on to her audience, to enrich other lives than her own. After a dispute with her record company put her second album in jeopardy, she re-mortgaged her house in order to record the record.
Dear Frustrated Superstar is crawling with unabashed pop hooks that evoke the innocent joy of a long lost musical world – dare I say, that of the Beatles. Part of that joy is in fabulous guitar sounds, which are in abundance on her later work as well. What grabs on a deeper level than her pop hooks is the tension between the exuberance in her voice and melodies and the lyrics, which are dark, unsettling. They speak of the pain which must be fueling her creations, and which she transforms to give us such delight. I’m reminded of John Lennon’s mixture of minor and major tonalities, his sweetest melodies tempered with blue notes.
If we haven’t gotten that Nerina’s songs are more than pop trifles, she’s explicit: “But you know my river, and it still runs deep.” Very deep. She’s troubled in love, but like Joni before her, after something else as well. In “Blood is Blood” she sings:
Oh blood is blood, and blood will flow -
That's all it does, that's all it knows
But I've one question, I want something,
I want more.
By her second album, Fires, Nerina is charting territory far from the pop song. Her “Idaho” –a song which I suspect she might have written without ever going there - only because of how much fun she has singing that word – is a strange state indeed, both musically and lyrically. I don’t understand it, but I’m happy to visit, and to keep returning.
“Geek Love” simply kills. It starts with a piano dissonance the likes of which I’ve never heard in a pop song, one that insures it will never be a hit on any earthly radio. Yet by the chorus I’m swept away by one hellacious hook. Not just the melody, but the lyric too:
Hey you, could you give it a rest?
Just take me home, come on and get me undressed
Put on a fire and make it enough
For we're geeks but we know this is love
The danger signaled by that first chord is ostensibly that of an adulterous affair. What Nerina does is to convey that what’s far more transgressive is the notion that geeks might be sexy. And is this song ever.
That Nerina is not just another pop idol is confirmed by her third album, The Graduate. It commemorates the fact that after rock stardom she did not get addicted, break up her band, and go into rehab per VH-1 usual, but went to college and got her degree.
Yet the music on this album is unstudied. It’s more rocked out than the previous two, starting with “Everybody’s Gone to War,” a fresh take on the anti-war song.
As Martin has noticed, Nerina has a fine sense of humor. “When Did I Become Such a Bitch?” somehow succeeds in being both screamingly funny and an authentic feminist statement. Just to prove her point she daringly mocks the patented vocal affectation of one of her few worthy contemporary rivals – Regina Spektor.
The rock songs are great fun, but I’m happiest when she quiets down. In “Cigarette” she combines exotic production with eerie stacked vocals to create a world even more foreign than “Idaho,” an almost frightening look at human desire.
Speaking of human, her song “Human” is an instant classic, an anthem for the ages:
Oh-oh-oh, We are not our sorrows
We are not our scars
We are only human
This is what we are
She starts the third line with an astonishing leap of vocal virtuosity which captures as well as I’ve heard just how hard it is for us humans to be what we are.
I’m grateful that Nerina is one of us.
And congratulations to Nerina on the newest creation of her and her producer Andy Chatterly: Wolgang Amadeus Chatterley, born this September 9th. Good luck living up to the name, kid.
Watch Nerina being herself (!) on her home page, and singing at home without benefit of studio tricks: