Nerina Pallot seems to have learnt the Art of the EP. Since her February 2009 live jaunt, the Jersey-born singer-songwriter has crafted a trio of tour-only EPs that, as EPs are often wont to do, feature some of her finest (and rarest) material. But while Buckminster Fuller and Junebug were strong affairs in their own right, Skeleton Key achieves something different altogether.
After her third LP, 2009’s The Graduate, wore its pop influences unabashedly on its sleeve, Pallot has achieved recognition not just as a songwriter of intensely beautiful ballads but a real crafty pop tunesmith. So much so that Kylie Minogue has named her forthcoming new album Aphrodite after a Pallot/Andy Chatterley original and performed Pallot’s infectious “Better Than Today” on her last tour. But when Pallot does pop, it’s a classy Elton John kind of pop, or even reminiscent a more immediately palatable Steely Dan. Indeed, in her chord progressions and sometime-jazz leanings, the Dan influence is palpable.
Radio listeners and the public at large probably know her best from (the not entirely representative) “Everybody’s Gone To War,” but as the years go on and each new release appears, Pallot reveals herself to be a songwriter and performer of significant worth. Now recording at a home studio with husband Andy Chatterley, she has free rein to indulge her flights of fancy and, on the evidence of this new EP, that is something to rejoice. Recorded in March 2010 and released the following month at Pallot’s live UK gigs, the Skeleton Key EP is the most delightfully unexpected entry into the Nerina Pallot catalogue to date. It’s not an exaggeration to say that these 20 minutes are some of Pallot’s best on record yet.
Opener “Wolf and I” boasts perhaps Pallot’s most elaborate and imaginative arrangement on record to date; what is ostensibly a strange mid-tempo piano ballad is elevated into a studio piece of supreme sophistication with Pallot’s twisting background vocals, hypnotic drum beats, and various electronic squalls and effects. ‘Spooky’ is the word. The more conventional “And So It Should” begins on acoustic guitar but the arrangement grows to incorporate piano, vibes, haunting background vocals, handclaps, and electric guitar. A wonderful vocal performance wraps itself around chords that recall some of Joni Mitchell’s more sinister songs; it’s one of the more immediate songs on the EP and quietly powerful and intense.
The EP takes a turn for the more upbeat with “Break Up at the Disco.” Here, the pop smarts Pallot displayed so openly on The Graduate make a return, but with an added darkness and edge. This is unusual mutant singer-songwriter melodrama meets vintage disco pop; it’s like Elton John meets Donna Summer at an ABBA concert in 1979. But, as ever, Pallot’s lyrics are a cut above and the arrangement, which even incorporates saxophone, is pleasingly sophisticated and knowing. When Pallot goes all-out pop, she always manages to attain a certain intelligence and class and it’s just as much a part of her sound now as such emotional piano ballads as “Sophia” or “It Was Me.”
Meanwhile, “Is This A Low?” takes the title of the most un-Nerina Pallot song to date and for that we should commend her. Experimental and unusual, the title is perhaps a nod to Blur’s “This Is A Low,” and its moody, bass-heavy guitar-driven sound isn’t a million miles away from Blur. By some distance the dirtiest, moodiest, bluesiest song Pallot has committed to record, it’s also one of her sexiest and most sensual. Her gorgeous, feminine vocals lend the song an appropriately spooky, haunting quality, and towards its climax it recalls some of the trippier moments of Rickie Lee Jones’ Ghostyhead. Which is maybe not a coincidence, as it leads into a beautiful version of Jones’ “Skeletons,” a piano ballad of particularly delicate intensity. Pallot has credited the song with inspiring the whole EP; it’s a testament to Pallot’s own talents as a writer and vocalist that her own songs are the drawing point here.
Far and away the most interesting and unusual artistic statement of her career so far, the Skeleton Key EP is currently on sale on a tour-only basis but is expected to appear at Pallot’s online store soon. When it does appear, snap it up. Pallot’s two previous EPs, 2009’s Buckminster Fuller and Junebug, both feature their share of fine material, but Skeleton Key is a significant step forward. The most cohesive and thematically-linked work of her career to date, it features some exciting new experiments for Pallot and, especially coming after The Graduate, only highlights her sense of diversity and variety. If Pallot can craft something similar over the course of a full-length LP, her next record should be one to treasure.