Thursday, 26 September 2013

Frankly impressive

One of my closest friends once ventured the opinion that my taste in music is parochial. I took umbrage at this, and was quietly hurt. However, she was, of course, correct. I haven't counted but I'd estimate that two thirds of my record collection has one or more of the following names associated with it: Morrissey, Marr, Rossiter, Stipe, Gedge, Weller, Marriott, Townshend, Davies, Smith, Cocker and Yorke. Refined taste, yes. Diverse? Erm...

So what does it take to get me to listen to something beyond those twelve angry men? To be a bit less parochial? Well, it takes something distinctive, something genuine, something engaging. A talent that isn't mass-produced, homogenised, exploited and spun. Something a bit like Nina Baker, maybe?

Nina Baker - yes, I am beguiled [Photo (c) 2012]I've written about Nina before. I interviewed her on this very blog last November, drawing comparisons with early Kate Bush and Tori Amos, amongst others. And I've seen her perform live, and been a tiny bit beguiled by the purity of her voice. All of which is how I came to end up with a preview copy of her forthcoming debut album Quite Frankly sitting on my desk. So, having established that this isn't my usual cup of tea, what do I think?

Quite frankly (see what I did there?), I think it's mightily impressive. I've already mentioned the quality of Nina's voice, and on these thirteen tracks (plus a hidden reprise) it entwines around her piano motifs beautifully. She is ably supported too, with a fuller sound than on previous recordings and when live, augmented as she is here by strings, woodwind, brass and more in addition to her three-piece backing band. There's quite clearly a huge amount of effort made with the (Ronson-influenced) production too, no more so than on lead track Single Bed which seems to have all manner of bells and whistles thrown at it. Make no mistake, it's a standout track and would make an ideal single release, though I personally prefer the simpler version with just Nina and piano. But what do I know, right, haven't we already established that I'm just an old indie-purist curmudgeon?

Even if, like me, you're not Ms Baker's obvious target market, there's still plenty to enjoy here, especially if you pay close attention to the lyrics. If you're the sort of listener who just takes in the overall sound of a record, oblivious to the words, you might think this is an unremittingly upbeat album, seduced by the major key tunes and brightly coloured artwork. But listen closely, and you'll find there's more going on. Most, if not all, of the songs concern relationships - indeed, I have a little theory that if you rearranged the running order slightly you'd have the full story of a relationship from happy beginning, through difficult times, break-up, mourning its passing and finally emerging on the other side, older, wiser and maybe slightly scarred. And on balance, it looks like there were more bad times than good in that relationship - take a look at some of the song titles to see what I mean: Single Bed, Bruising, Little Fibs, Clown, The Price That I Pay, Game You Play, Stupid Mistake... in a relationship context, these are not upbeat titles. I wonder if Nina has been through the wringer at some point?

For me, the standout track here is The Price That I Pay. It's no surprise that this is reprised at the end for the album's hidden track - a hypnotic sojourn into a minor key, here more than ever Nina's voice and piano combine to devastating effect. It's a song that deserves a wide audience. Also worthy of special mention are the Radio 2-friendly balladry of Breaking Every Rule (some lovely strings on here), the Regina Spektor-esque When I'm Not With You, the Ronson-channelling Game You Play and the filmic Stupid Mistake, which surely deserves to be on a soundtrack somewhere, some time.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, you can only admire Nina, whether she's your cup of tea or not. Here's a young girl with genuine talent, singing and playing the piano, writing and co-producing all her own songs, defiantly not chasing the flickering flame offered by X Factor, The Voice and all the rest. She's doing it properly, and the fruits of her labours are there for us all to see and hear on her excellent debut. Bottom line: if you own and like The Kick Inside, there's a good chance there's something for you here too. I don't give star ratings in my reviews, but if I did this would warrant a solid four out of five.

As for me, I'm no less parochial, not really. Those twelve angry men still captivate me like no others. But Nina - yes please. I'll have some of that. And I think there is more, and better, to come too. I just hope she doesn't have to go through the wringer again for inspiration...

Footnote: Nina has been in touch to tell me that Single Bed will be released as a single on the 4th of November, with the album release of Quite Frankly to follow on the 6th of January. It'll be on Resplendent Records, and no doubt available through Amazon, iTunes and the rest. Oh, and since you read this Nina, I hope you appreciated all the tea references...

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