It’s been a busy few years for Nerina Pallot. After her third album, 2009′s The Graduate, failed to gain much traction despite its literate pop heart, she applied that sensibility to writing for others, notching up credits on albums by the likes of Kylie Minogue (‘Better Than Today’, ‘Aphrodite’) and Diana Vickers (‘Put It Back Together’). Add to those a cover of her single ‘Real Late Starter’ by UK ‘X Factor’ winner Joe McElderry on his debut album, and Pallot probably had her most successful year yet as a songwriter. Either way, it was enough to convince Geffen to give Pallot a third shot at a major-label contract – oddly enough, engineered by the same A&R who originally signed her to Polydor for her prophetically-titled 2001 debut, Dear Frustrated Superstar – and in September 2010 she entered the studio with ex-Suede man Bernard Butler to cut this latest record. (A week later she gave birth to her first son, Wolfie, from which the album takes its name.)
Whereas parts of The Graduate and its predecessor, 2005′s Fires, lacked cohesion, owing to the piecemeal nature of the recording sessions, the concentrated focus of the Pallot–Butler teaming yields winning results. Butler’s signature production style, as displayed to the point of ubiquity on Duffy’s Rockferry, will no doubt be a deal-breaker for some with its retro guitars, scopic reverb, lush harmonies and pervading strings, but the sheer robustness of Pallot’s songs – their melodic beauty and tight pop structures – is complemented rather than swamped by his approach. At first it comes as some small shock as lead single ‘Put Your Hands Up’ is transformed from the solo piano pop stylings of its 2010 live performances into a snakey, sassy ’60s-inspired number with added backing vox from long-time Butler cohort David McAlmont. Repeated listens, however, reveal it to be her cleverest and catchiest single to date (along with ‘Real Late Starter’) – immediate but sophisticated.
Similarly refined is the flirtatious ‘Turn Me On Again’, a slice of pure ‘70s singer-songwriter pop with a slinky, jazzy feel. The multitracked chorus harmonies and descending melody of the verses, not to mention strings and a Steely Dan-esque guitar break, hint at a fussy, overdone arrangement, but somehow it comes off as sumptuous and elegant. ‘All Bets Are Off’ is similarly luxuriant, Butler’s production bringing one of Pallot’s loveliest piano ballads to life with tasteful strings and drums; like ‘Turn Me On Again’, it sounds like a Radio 2 hit in waiting, though perhaps without the surprise harp solo at the end. ‘Butterfly’ brings a driving, march-time rhythm to the fore; ‘This Will Be Our Year’ (re-recorded from the piano ballad of 2009’s Junebug EP) adds soul licks to the mix; the jaunty ‘I Think’ boasts a Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles quality; and Linda Perry co-write ‘I Do Not Want What I Do Not Have’, salvaged from early sessions for The Graduate, benefits from a surprisingly spooky, sinister production.
The final two songs strip away the grandiosity of some of the production to spotlight the intimacy of Pallot’s voice and lyrics. Long-time live hit ‘Grace’ is set to a gorgeous acoustic backdrop, making use of Pallot’s lower range to wonderful effect, while album closer ‘History Boys’ has all the distinction of vintage Rufus Wainwright and the delicacy of Rickie Lee Jones’s most fragile ballads (the Pallot-covered ‘Skeletons’, for example). As divisive as his work can be, Butler has achieved what other producers have so far failed to do for Pallot, and that’s to bring out the class and graceful symmetry inherent in her songwriting. In that respect, Year Of The Wolf represents a sizeable leap, and is Pallot’s most mature and relaxed recording yet.
[Geffen; June 13, 2011]