Manchester seems to take up quite a lot of space in the consciousness of Julie Campbell (or LoneLady, as she is otherwise known). It is evident in the style of many of her songs, it’s frequently mentioned in her promotional material, and she even went so far as to build a studio in the guts of a dilapidated mill.
Unsurprisingly for an artist who makes a point of identifying a psycho-geographical influence Nerve Up is awash with Mancunian influence – most notably the sounds that emanated from Joy Division and Tony Wilson’s Factory.
Although these sparse songs could lend themselves to desolate introspection, they are saved by Campbell’s vocal dexterity. Take for example the percussive delivery of If Not Now, which tumbles and twists around the basic frame of the spidery guitar part without ever sounding forced or too clever for its own good. Intuition, the recent single, pulls off a similar trick, only this time LoneLady almost punches her vocals into the fray, stamping her authority all over a nicely Wire-like new wave guitar pattern.
At times she sounds like a young Sinead O’Connor, all emotion and feisty spirit; at others she has the mystical presence of Kate Bush. But anyone expecting histrionics and gymnastic levels of vocal expertise be warned: Campbell always keeps things simple and economical. Everything she does is purely for the benefit of the song and any misplaced warbling would almost certainly be detrimental.
Title track Nerve Up looks to the early ’80s for its minimal construction; efficiency is most certainly at a premium here. The guitar line is so simple and delicate that it is almost unnecessary as electro-drums lead the line. Handclaps and synthetic cowbells are to the fore as Manchester is left behind and New York is conjured up with the bare minimum of sonic cues. Images of Beastie Boys, Luscious Jackson and Grace Jones spring forth as Campbell performs a successful industrial seduction.
Immaterial makes it impossible not to make those Sinead O’Connor comparisons; she sounds like a long lost relative of Mandinka. Broken down into syllables the word “immaterial” suddenly becomes deliciously laden with melody, and nonsensical as a word. But musically it becomes anything but immaterial. It’s the most obvious concession to straightforward pop here (albeit pop from a different decade), and although it tells the tale of emotional damage and loneliness, it retains a pop sweetness that provides more than a beam of hope through the murk of sadness.
Sometimes things doesn’t always go according to plan. Have No Past and Cattletears lack hooks and flounder when compared to the stronger songs that pack the beginning of the album. Army rescues things a little towards the end with its rampant attitude and skewed new-wave chords, and Fear No More closes things in an emotional manner at odds with the rest of the album. Mournful strings wash over a lethargic guitar part, and for once Campbell sounds emotionally drained.
It’s a charged ending to an album that is full of promise. There may be one or two moments where Nerve Up lacks focus, but for the most part this is an exciting album from an intriguing talent.