Polly Scattergood Polly Scattergood

[Mute; 2009]

Styles:  nouveau-pop
Others: Nellie McKay, Texas

Polly Scattergood, an Essex-bred singer groomed at music school, [composed more than 800 songs->http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2008/sep/16/popandrock1] before she cobbled together this debut, a stat brandished in her promotional materials. This mass of material was whittled down to a highly stylized alternative pop album featuring several tracks that don’t deserve a space on it. But alas, a debut can be forgiven like no other album in an artist’s repertoire, especially when it features a song like the 2007 single “Nitrogen Pink” — a standout, or at the very least a stander among assertive but often forgettable pieces. It’s hard to know what to make of many of Scattergood’s tracks, but during “Nitrogen Pink,” my bafflement lost its edge and I paid complete attention.

Scattergood’s vision is so odd, full of chirping whimsy, moody sustains, and tickling sound effects, that it was easy to imagine diamonds buried beneath poppy drum patterns and out of sight, while “Pink” continued to hog the spotlight. This turned out to be true. “I Hate The Way,” the album’s opener, is instantly warm and powerful, a perfect place to start the album over. Its thickly layered melody rolls in after a timid and unimpressive intro. The singer introduces her habit of prioritizing words far ahead of melody and far, far ahead of rhythm. She stands very close to the mic, billowing, screeching, and sidling up to it, hurling man-inspired frustration out into the room and back at herself.

Several of the songs, including “I Hate The Way,” are standard, simple, radio-ready throwbacks to English pop of the mid- to late-’90s. “Other Too Endless” boldly goes where bands like Texas have gone before, chugging along through easy progressions and little phrase-ending shimmers. The low notes of violins and a whining synth bring the song its only speckle of originality. But it’s the most danceable and built-up song on the album -- it's also fun. Later numbers like “Breathe In Breathe Out,” on the other hand, sound like the frail interlude of a dying heroine in an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical: full of the triumphant, the depressing, and the trite. Why that song, out of literally hundreds of other options? The emotional content of the chosen tracks may have been too hard for the artist to put aside, a problem I also accuse Bat for Lashes of having on Two Suns.

“Bunny Club” is, like many of the tracks, dissonant, goofy, and simplistic before it reaches slightly higher ground as a humming, assonant, but still dark pop song painted over with an intense synth, angry whispers, and electric strings. After a number of listens, its colors start to impress, but it’s all a far cry from the natural simplicity that Scattergood hints at in promotional Polaroids of herself, which made me think we might be getting another Marnie Stern or at least a Nellie McKay. True, Scattergood’s “Got a dog and a gun/ And I’m living in London now,” but the end of the protest song that is “Bunny Club” sounds like what might happen when you reach the highest level of Pac-Man. The guitars, if they’re present on any of Scattergood’s songs at all, are pushed down into its dark foundations, relegated to the rhythm section. Scattergood’s voice is the star, but it can be utterly distracting, a vessel for an expressive, prolific writer who may be too afraid of the revision process.

1. I Hate The Way
2. Other Too Endless
3. Untitled 27
4. Please Don’t Touch
5. I Am Strong
6. Unforgiving Arms
7. Poem Song
8. Bunny Cub
9. Nitrogen Pink
10. Breathe In Breathe Out

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