Prior to Kate Nash taking the stage, the PA plays an assortment of songs by Sixties girl groups, mainly the Supremes and the Shirelles. Aretha Franklin also gets an airing, and it’s her stirring rendition of “Respect” that gets the mostly female, mainly teenage crowd singing along. Kate Nash wants respect, too—but unlike Aretha, she doesn’t simply ask for it. She cajoles it out of her suitors. Whereas Aretha claims she’ll walk out unless her man gives her what she deserves, Nash brazenly tells her guy she’d rather be with his friends, “’cause they are much fitter.”
Also unlike Aretha, whose powerful voice makes you believe her, you get the impression that Nash couldn’t walk out even if she wanted to. One minute she’s telling us she “won’t give a shit,” and the next she’s cooing “I just want your kiss, boy.” This, you might say, is a girl who can’t make up her mind. It’s a quandary that plagues her music as well as her lyrics. Her 18-song set runs the gamut from pounding piano-led pop, to stark acoustic ballads, to a punk rock number that wouldn’t sound amiss on X-Ray Spex’s debut album.
Nash is part of a strange proliferation of young female artists from the UK—Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse have led the way—making a mark in the US. Like her lyrics and vocals, which often affect a singsong Cockney brogue, Nash’s music errs on the side of Allen’s acerbic pop, as opposed to Winehouse’s more mature musical approach. Indeed, if we were to make the weakest of analogies, Winehouse would be the alcoholic mother to rebellious daughter Allen, who in turn would be the elder sibling to the precocious Nash.
At just 20 years old, it’s no wonder Nash looks slightly nervous when she steps onstage to face the sold-out crowd. It’s a crowd that delights in Nash’s deliberate Englishness (“say ‘little’,” shouts one fan, to which she complies) as much as it engages with her music. Dressed in her usual vintage dress and stockings combination, Nash sits down at her piano-sounding keyboard and immediately strikes into “Pumpkin Soup”, an upbeat pop number from her debut album, Made of Bricks. The song, whose recorded incarnation is sufficiently jaunty in and of itself, is played at a fast and furious pace by Nash and her four-piece, all-male backing band. Amidst this raucous re-interpretation, which the quartet plays as if it’s their last song, not the first, she sings, somewhat seductively: “I’m not in love / I just wanna be touched.” In the grand scheme of rock’n’roll lyrics, it’s not particularly lascivious. But it’s a sentiment that’s particularly striking given the number of parents in the audience who have obviously brought their children, mainly daughters, to see what I can only assume they believe to be a positive role model perform.
But with song titles such as “Shit Song” and “Dickhead” (“Why you being a dickhead for / Stop being a dickhead / Why you being a dickhead for / You’re just fucking up situations,” she states during the latter), what did they expect? Empowerment, perhaps; a potty mouth, definitely. An almighty “Fuck!” even emanates from the slight singer after her guitar lead falls out during an acoustic run through “Pickpocket”. And just to compound the cursing, during “Model Behavior” (her punk rock number), she screams: “Hey bitch, touch this.” Parents recoil, the kids rejoice.
Swearing aside, it’s not difficult to see why she’s so popular. Her lyrics often come across as playground-speak. Like, you know, she’s singing their language. On “We Get On”, she says, “My friends were like ‘whatever’”, while a new song that starts off with handclaps and a snippet of Manfred Mann’s “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy” finds Nash concluding “I think that girl’s shady”—a sentiment obviously shared by her fans, as it is met by a raucous round of applause. She ends the song by deciding that the girl in question is, in fact, a bitch. Cue even more applause.
While Nash is well known for her piano playing (piano pounding might be a more apt description), she works best when she steps away from the ivories. Half of tonight’s 18-song set sees Nash either picking up a guitar (acoustic or electric) or putting away instrumentation altogether to embrace the microphone with two hands. It’s obvious from the cheers that “Foundations” is everyone’s favorite song. It also happens to be her best, and most restrained, keyboard-led number. This show actually suffers from her piano playing. She pounds on her instrument as if she’s performing CPR: but in her attempts to resuscitate it, she only manages to mangle her tunes and overpower her vocals.
Towards the end of the set, though, as curfews are called and the crowd visibly thins, Nash plays two new songs that showcase her range and diversity, songs that suggest she might have some longevity. The first is a stark, acoustic ballad entitled “Don’t You Want to Share the Guilt?” Featuring a Jarvis Cocker-esque spoken word section that comes across as heartfelt as it is haunting, it showcases a mature approach to songwriting. “Model Behavior”, the second song, is a punk rock number that forgoes the Ashlee Simpson approach to punk pop with Nash cribbing her vocal antics and pogoing abilities from X-Ray Spex frontwoman Poly Styrene—arguably the first female icon of punk.
While it’s hard to fault this display of exuberance (or her music, for that matter), her tales of taunting boys and toeing the line to get to boys, didn’t exactly resonate. Then again, I am 30 years old and male, and I’d be worried if I found her songs meaningful rather than enjoyable on a purely melodic level. That said, as Nash showcased tonight, she has a wide range of material to pull from as she moves forward. While many new artists’ live shows merely consist of their debut album played through in its entirety, aided only by a few covers, Nash pulled out several new songs that are stronger than her earlier material. Nash may encounter issues as she, and her fan base, grow older. But at 20, she has plenty of years left to turn her lovelorn encounters into lyrics. Unfortunately, for me, they are encounters I can’t empathize with, no matter how melodic the musical accompaniment may be. Kate Nash has my respect, but to paraphrase one Mom I overhead during the prolonged before-band sound check: “I’m not so sure I can do these kid things anymore.”