Nerina Pallot - Year Of The Wolf
Much has happened for Nerina Pallot between 2009's independently released and well received The Graduate, ranging from the birth of her son, Wolfgang (the "Wolf" of the title), to high profile writing jobs on albums by Kylie Minogue and Diana Vickers. But the most surprising event of all is her signing to a subsidiary of former label Polydor for this fourth studio album. With a return to the majors comes an increased budget, and with it Duffy's's favoured knob-twiddler, Bernard Butler on production duties. What they've produced is an album that seems slightly out of time - even down to the album retro looking album cover.
Lead single 'Put Your Hands' up is a brilliant piece of summery pop, with swelling strings and serves notice of the new sonic direction that the album takes. The upbeat 'Butterfly' (which you might recognise as the music from the recent Jersey tourism advert) is the album's standout chorus and secret weapon - I've lost count of the number of mornings I've woken with the "start no fires" refrain buzzing around my brain.
There are a good selection of ballads too. 'Grace', a song which has been around in Pallot's live repertoire for five years or more, finally finds itself committed to record. A haunting affair, written for a family member, it tries to console the subject, optimistic despite the gloom. 'This Will Be Our Year' (a refugee from 2009's Junebug EP) finds itself transformed from a piano and vocals ballad into a langorous brass-tinged affair. 'If I Lost You Now' is given poignancy and a second meaning by the knowledge that she was pregnant as she sang but still stands on its own as a love song. There are more soaring strings on the sumptuous 'All Bets Are Off', transformed from the acoustic version she's performed live into a sweeping waltz, dripping with heartbreak. It's the best break-up song you'll hear this year.
The issue in places is with Butler's approach - never use one instrument where two will do. There are also some odd choices, particularly the seemingly unconnected harp solo at the end of 'All Bets Are Off', and the harmonica on 'Grace' just seems superfluous.
Ultimately, whether The Year Of The Wolf floats your boat is likely to have as much to do with how you feel about Bernard Butler's sound and approach to production as it does Pallot's songwriting and vocals. They're still there, but the production is actually quite a radical departure. Mentally add or subtract two points from the score depending on your disposition towards The Butler Sound. It would have been easy for Pallot to take the Cathy Dennis approach and become a songwriter-for-hire, especially given the quality of the songs on show here. It's to her credit that she hoarded a cupboard full of gems for herself.