There’s being quirky as a feature of artistic expression and then there is quirky for the sake of it. While not entirely without virtue, this album feels like it leans far too much into the latter than the former and it leaves you feeling exhausted and confused by the end – relived that it has finished.
I discovered Nadine Shah when I went to the Florence and the Machine day of the British Summer Time festival last year – which seems an eon ago as I sit writing this in week 17 of Covid-19 lockdown. She was the second act I saw of the day – first on the main stage – and I happened to accidentally stand next to her family in the loose early-in-the-day main stage crowd.
Her performance was eclectic and varied but very entertaining and her North East accent brought some nostalgia to the Newcastle student in me. I’d been meaning to follow up and listen to her records but didn’t get round to it since so my interest was piqued once again when I saw her come up on the release list for the same Friday as Haim and Jessie Ware.
Listening to the album I was picking up bits of Bjork and maybe PJ Harvey as influences. Quirky and boldly different sounds back the Geordie twanged wry observations present in the lyrics. While that is a recipe of success and one that delivers through the opening tracks it begins to wear thin by the halfway mark.
The album opens with an excellent trio. Club Cougar is a calypso infused funky number with exciting explosions of brass. Ladies for Babies (Goats for Love) plays a heavier rock sound off against atmospheric post-rock elements which proves oddly seductive, while Shah’s vocal feels like an unhinged ’70s Bond theme (in the verses at least). Finally, Buckfast has a fat groove that would make the Black Keys jealous which alternates with a swaying chorus vocal. True to its name, by its sound it paints the picture of getting drunk in a dive bar on questionable booze.
These three are eclectic, varied and a little mad and set the expectation for what lies ahead. However, in my view what follows is hit and miss. I do acknowledge though that this is entirely subjective and the parts I find beyond the pale, others will find endearing and engaging. This is just my take.
The vocal line in Dilly Dally reminds me of Arctic Monkeys for some reason. I think its the Northern accent (yes I know it is not the same one!) paired with the rhythmic story telling. This track is where the off-kilter style begins grate and seems more like being oblique for the sake of it with the intentionally off-key backing vocals, flute solos and cheap keyboard effects it starts to wear thin.
Trad has already begun before the track slides into view, laying out an Arcade Fire-esque pacy percussion rhythm and guitars full of restrained anticipation. The choruses are more smoothed out with brass gliding around and matching the vocal melody before reverting back to the rhythm for the verses (which is by far more enjoyable). The juxtaposition doesn’t quite work but does serve to add a cynical tone to the lyrics about marriage and impressing a critical side eye at its patriarchal heritage.
Kitchen Sink toes the line between late night jazz club and rock show while flailing wildly and achieving neither. At this mid-point on the record it becomes clear that ‘Kitchen Sink’ is less album title and more mission statement… and not in a good way. This impression is only cemented with Kite, a track consisting a single note guitar pluck, whistling, glockenspiel and male humming. Yeaaahh… nah.
Ukrainian Wine comes as a saviour of sorts. It sounds like a ‘normal’ indie rock track. It is probably the only ‘normal’ song on the record. I have tried this track away from the album as well and it is genuinely great – not just a contextual relief like when the oven fan stops. It harnesses the same variety of ideas displayed on other tracks but hones them into a coherent track which lyrically has a delightfully withering take on growing up. Oddly enough I think it remains a little too constrained and could have done with exploding into full rock flow as the tension underlying never gets a full pay off.
Wasps Nest takes us back to the late night jazz club feel of earlier in the record, remaining controlled. Walk on the other hand is back to full blown eccentricity with one syllable per bar singing, science fiction AI vocoder vocal harmonising and the kazoo drone orchestra of your nightmares all bouncing off one another. Give it a rest now.
Final track Prayer Mat demonstrates how the off-the-wall musical ideas can be used to great effect to accentuate and enhance a track rather than being an irritating and distracting focal point. A positive note to end on but by the time you reach this point, if you do at all, you’ll likely be somewhat exhausted.
There is a duality in every track where the verses and choruses are very different musical styles and ideas switching to follow an A, B, A, B, A, B pattern. Often there is only a bear minimum linking the two parts together and while jarring juxtapositions between parts of a song can make for interesting, vibrant and exciting records, to have it used on most songs in a 12 song, 45 minute listen ends up being simply tiresome.
Odd production ideas littered throughout indicate that the title of the record is more a description of the record and unfortunately, in this case, that is not a good thing. To have ‘throwing the kitchen sink at it’ as a complement it requires having impact. This album makes an impression but not an impact. Rather than the hell-for-leather version of a thrown kitchen sink, this one feels like the weird and wonderful things you find in the U-bend.
A few decent tracks of note but it was frankly an exhausting listen. I can see where it will have a market for sure, it’s just not for me. Really disappointing. I love her voice. It is at once comforting and haunting, friendly and alienating. It is also great to hear regional accents shine through in song. I just wish the musical stylings behind it weren’t so uncomfortable at times.
Highlights: Ukrainian Wine, Buckfast, Club Cougar, Ladies for Babies (Goats for Love), Prayer Mat