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Kate Nash: Whipping Girl

For someone so fetching, talented and lyrically inspired, Londoner Kate Nash sure manages to annoy a lot of people. A MySpace band from the U.K. devoted to mocking her has some 2,500 friends, Pitchfork gave her full-length debut CD, Made of Bricks, a dismal rating, and the British Independent declared it in “[p]ole position for worst album of the year.”

It’s hard to understand what’s got these geezers going, because Made of Bricks is a brilliant album. Perhaps Nash is suspect in some critics’ eyes because she’s only 20, or because she undertook her musical career practically on a lark. Shortly after being rejected by the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, she fell down a flight of stairs and broke her foot. Laid up for a few weeks, she strummed her guitar and contemplated her future. Before long she’d uploaded her songs to MySpace and — lo and behold — was discovered by Lily Allen. The third-nipple-displaying fellow Londoner put Nash in her top eight friends, which we all know is how stars are made in the twenty-aughts.

By early 2007 her synth-based angst-anthem, “Caroline’s A Victim,” was receiving unlikely airplay on MTV2, and she scored a deal with U.K. imprint Fiction Records. Made of Bricks dropped that summer in England, and it went quickly to number one, based largely on the success of her biggest hit to date, “Foundations.”

Geffen just released Made of Bricks here, and it’s an absolute riot. Nash’s spectacular sense of delivery and pacing are displayed throughout, particularly on “Foundations,” which recalls the Smiths with its melancholy narrative complemented by a deliriously catchy hook. In a series of bitter battles with her boyfriend, she comes out swinging: “I said, ‘I’d rather be with your friends, mate, ’cause they are much fitter.’ Yes, it was childish, and you got aggressive, and I must admit that I was a bit scared. But it gives me thrills to wind you up.” In the end, however, she settles for a truce: “My fingertips are holding onto the cracks in our foundations, and I know that I should let go, but I can’t.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, she embraces her songs’ dramatic potentials, slowly foreshadowing the action before delivering Björk-like ecstatic climaxes. On “Mariella,” Nash introduces the bratty protagonist over slow, rolling piano, and the pace quickens as the character grows more defiant. Her mother pleads, “You can have your friends ’round and they can stay for tea. Won’t you just try to fit in please, do this for me.” But Mariella isn’t having it. Instead, in a morbid twist, she glues her lips together, and at the song’s end Nash chants: “I’m never ever ever ever ever ever ever gonna unglue my lips from being together.”

Why a young songstress capable of such fanciful storytelling and wonderful hooks should be piled on by overzealous critics is a mystery, but much of the hot air focuses on her perceived similarities to Lily Allen. Allen is also alleged to sing in a “Mockney” accent, despite having been raised, like Nash, in a middle-class family. A British band calling itself “LDN Is a Victim” rather harshly took the two women to task for this reason via its parody of “Caroline’s a Victim,” while Pitchfork used the Allen comparison to slag Nash: “If Lily Allen is the plainspoken wiseass chick all the guys love to hang around,” wrote Ryan Dombal shortly after Made of Bricks’ U.K. release, “Kate Nash is the plainspoken piano geek who simultaneously loves Lily Allen and is also a little bit jealous of her social prowess.”

In interviews, Nash has called comparisons between the two women lazy and sexist. She’s right. Made of Bricks is as different from Allen’s debut, Alright, Still, as the albums’ names imply. While Allen’s fairly breezy work hints at ska and jazz, Nash’s is all over the place. Produced by Babyshambles and Bloc Party alum Paul Epworth, it features everything from abrasive electroclash experiments (“Play”) to sincere ballads (“Birds”) to mid-tempo electro-pop (“Shit Song”). Lyrically, both women level fairly blunt criticisms toward men, but Nash is far more skilled at capturing relationship angst. Whereas Allen’s songs settle for bitter lyrical darts — “At first, when I see you cry, it makes me smile” — Nash’s songs routinely capture both sides of love/hate relationships. “Shit Song” begins with a round of insults, before boozily imagining a reconciliation: “You could come ’round mine, we could drink some wine in the summertime. It could be quite nice.”

Some criticism focused on Epworth’s production. But it’s a tribute to Nash’s talents that she tackles these different genres so effortlessly and enthusiastically. After listening to Made of Bricks you linger not on the production, but on Nash’s candid, honest lyrics. Though they have their caustic moments, more often than not they are gentle and considered. Her critics could take a lesson.

Kate Nash performs at the Troubadour on Mon., Jan. 14.

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