Nadine Shah‘s appearance back in 2012 with her Aching Bones EP quickly saw her attract significant attention – partly due to her geographical background (she grew up in Whitburn, a small town in South Tyneside but comes from a family that can claim roots in both Pakistan and Norway) but mainly because of her striking, distinctive vocals and powerful songs that arrived with little fanfare or warning. Her debut album Love Your Dum And Mad saw her quickly compared to the likes of PJ Harvey and Nick Cave (the former especially being an understandable, if sometimes slightly too easy, point of reference).
On follow up album Fast Food she draws from a similar musical palette, but the intervening years have helped her sound bolder and more confident (not that she’s ever been particularly lacking in that department). Whereas her first album explored the issue of mental health and its wider social stigmas and misperceptions, Fast Food sees her turn her gaze to the subject of human relationships and the difficulties and imperfections that so often surround them. It was written in two months, partly in response to the protracted nature of the release of her debut, and it boasts a real urgency and leanness as a result, in no doubt aided by the continued presence of Ben Hillier on production duties.
The ringing guitars and dynamic lurches of title track open the album and combined with Shah singing of “an empty house full of memories that scare the shit out of me” they succeed in immediately establishing the darker tone that never really leaves the record. It’s a brash, pounding and hugely promising beginning. It gets even better on the strained and serrated Fool – the exposed guitar lines revealing a tension matched by Shah’s barbed, withering lyrics – accusing the subject of the song of “regurgitated lines” and having “tattooed pretence upon your skin” before deciding to “let the other girl indulge the crap that you excrete”. A barely concealed, internalised anger ripples through the song. It’s not always as lyrically specific however – there are times on the album where Shah opts against such direct lines, preferring her lyrics to retain a mystery within the metaphors. Yet, either way there’s always a pronounced feeling of confrontation and catharsis not too far away.
There’s no doubting that her voice has a real underlying strength, but at times it also has a rich, almost ornate quality, as shown on Matador. The lyrics may project a vulnerability but it’s countered by the sheer muscularity of the sound, offering more evidence of the smouldering, crackling guitars that crop up throughout. The distorted unravelling of the background guitars on Divided in particular finds a good match in her wavering, heavily accented vocals (it’s also one of a few songs on the album to feature her family in the lyrics, clearly still an important area for her). Musically however it’s Nothing Else To Do that stands apart most – starting off in skeletal fashion before brass gradually supplants the guitars as the primary focus. She’d be well advised to explore such diversions in greater detail in future.
The second half of the album plays out in solid fashion – single Stealing Cars has more in the way of wired guitars and draped, gothic atmospherics while in comparison Washed Up and Big Hands offer up more veiled and transparent musical experiences. Living possesses possibly her most soaring vocal on the record in amongst the sinewy guitars and pulls to a close a tightly-wound, compact and unified set of songs. Forthcoming years will almost certainly offer her more opportunities to further develop her style and maybe pursue different approaches, but in the meantime Fast Food is a well-defined and powerful musical statement from an artist enjoying her time in the limelight.