Album Review: Paloma Faith – Fall to Grace

By on Thursday, 31st May 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

Musical disappointments can be life-changing. Imagine, after many formative years of studying Elton John’s seminal ’70s output, finally getting to see him live and discovering he who sounded so vital in those recordings was now an overweight old man, honking his way through syrupy ballads to the drunken delight of perma-tanned grannies. Ditto Ryan Adams, whose delicate songwriting prowess in his ‘Gold’ period had waned by the time I got to see him, replaced by endless electric guitar riffs and a personality emptier than Alex Ferguson’s whisky cabinet.

Although not quite on the same scale, Paloma Faith’s new album, ‘Fall to Grace’, is a similar letdown of reasonably-held expectations. Her 2009 debut, ‘Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful’, was a surprisingly engaging, rollicking ride of diva pop, which kicked off in assertive fashion with ‘Stone Cold Sober’, had a classy, world-class show tune in the title track, and a genuine, cleverly-realised smash hit in ‘New York’. It hung together well as a piece, and it still sounds fresh and listenable 3 years on. Her voice, whilst not quite in the same league as a Holiday or Winehouse, was distinctive and effective when partnered with carefully-chosen material.

It seemed as if she’d stepped straight off the stage of a musical production of ‘Oliver’; an ale-house girl, swinging her skirts and loving the limelight. Her 2010 performance at the Big Chill festival was a triumphant marriage of showmanship with a genuine, heartfelt, big-lunged vocal performance. Hence, the modest expectation of her new collection is to scrub off some of the rough vocal edges, de-cheese some of the arrangements, and supply a decent number of genuinely good pop songs. Unfortunately, none of these objectives are met.

The best song here, by quite some way, is lead-off single ‘Picking Up the Pieces’ (previous Video of the Moment here), a big, showy number in fine Paloma tradition. We’ve already discussed it here – worthy of a solid 6/10 of anyone’s money; add another couple of points if divas really are your thing. Sadly, the album never really matches its bombast, and it collapses heavily later on. ‘Black and Blue’ is a curious mid-tempo deconstruction of the vice contained within average lives (“She plays lady luck on scratch cards / with money lent to her by old friends”), but never gets our of second gear, and its maudlin tone can’t match the coy, seductive innocence of its fellow third track on the previous album. And where that collection then delivered its killer title song, this time Faith has decided to go with a dreary solo piano ballad with an unforgivable double negative (“Don’t say nothing / just sit next to me”); why, Paloma, why? Where are the tunes, girl?

Whether it’s because she’s trying too hard to force some emotion into the deadweight material, or maybe a case of over-tuition, her voice is less listenable than last time: vowels are mangled into unrecognisable shapes; high notes have an unfortunate habit of taking on a cheese-grater quality rather too often; it’s all just oversung. The absolute nadir of the whole affair is ‘Blood Sweat and Tears’, the moment when all good taste goes out the window, in the cynical interest of generating something “for the clubs”. Devoid of any melody to speak of, the nondescript lyrics cannot obscure the utterly heinous production levels. This cheaply synth-laden piece of unlistenable stodge would quite rightly be dismissed from the most half-baked, back-street, bargain-bin karaoke backing CD. The first 17 seconds of intro, with their off-the-shelf fake drums, half-hearted filtered synth line, and – unbelieveably – fake handbells – is the worst piece of “music” I’ve heard this year, no question. It would make Steps blush.

After such an aural insult, there’s barely any motivation to carry on, even with half the album left. Those fearless travellers who make it past the next two mid-tempo whinges might find a crumb of interest in ‘Agony’, which portrays a dysfunctional, and quite probably violent, relationship from the point of view of the victim, who appears to be suffering from traumatic bonding. With its repeated refrain of “This is agony / this could end in tragedy”, a more sarcastic writer might suggest that this song sums up the album as a whole. I, of course, couldn’t possibly comment.

Because Sony provide reviewers with no cover notes, no physical product, and only an iPhone-incompatible stream from which to listen to the music (duh…), I know not who has written the music which Paloma is singing, nor who is responsible for the shambolic production beyond rumours that Nellee Hooper was involved with ‘Picking Up the Pieces’. I doubt he’ll be putting his name to the rest of the album. It’s all such a shame – Faith is capable of far better than this, as her debut proves. But too much of this is poorly written, mid-tempo blandness, and I pity her having to sing it every night. The sooner she finds some genuine talent to supply a few decent songs the better.

3/10

‘Fall to Grace’, Paloma Faith’s second album, is out now on Sony.

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