Magazine article The New Yorker

Faith's Works

Magazine article The New Yorker

Faith's Works

Article excerpt

Paloma Faith is a twenty-seven-year-old former drama student, dancer, and magician's assistant from London who is about to release "Fall to Grace," her second album and her first to appear in America. She identifies as Cockney, and success has brought her into posh company; her shape-shifting background lends itself to improvisation and poses. But, when your first album is called "Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful?," poses are not to be criticized. For Faith, styles are more fun to play with than to honor, and she has a sharp, multi-textured, hefty voice that allows her to put across pretty much any style she favors, even if she usually favors a brand of neo-soul.

What makes Faith interesting isn't just her conversational affect or her raw talent--which is considerable enough to have made her an adviser on the current British version of "The Voice" and to have made her first album a platinum-seller--but how her cultural accent will read in America. Her affect has been described as "Cockney madam panto," which is fairly opaque language: "panto" refers to campy Christmas theatre; you know what madams oversee.

Faith's entrance into the American market comes after that of two enormously popular English singers--Amy Winehouse and Adele--whom she is likely tired of discussing, and she will have to navigate the odd calculus of the things about Brits that Americans like and the things that give them pause.

What makes the music of Adele and Winehouse appealing is, in part, its lack of camp and other British attributes that can make songs such complex interactions. Winehouse was a pained soul singer who followed an American tradition, and we instinctively knew how to listen to her. We also understand the Olympic march of Adele, who tends toward a kind of vocal blitzkrieg and emotionally triumphant mash notes: deep moments rendered in big lights. Faith, though, wants to use makeup and her gift for cheeky humor to avoid such categories, an approach that didn't succeed for Robbie Williams--at least not in America.

During many of her shows, Faith announces that she isn't fond of music made after 1973, a nice line for someone born in 1985. Performing at Joe's Pub a few months ago, she said that she likes older American pop but that she's "not that keen on what you're producing at the moment." She cites Etta James as her favorite singer and wears elaborate, form-fitting beaded dresses that were designed for social functions held in times that have passed and in buildings that are extinct. While assembling her outfit before the show at Joe's Pub, she referred to a pile of pinned hair weaves as "challah"; by the time she hit the stage, the loaves were framed by pompoms.

"Picking Up the Pieces," the first single on her new album, is heartbreak disco at its root, though it gets lost in overproduction. It begins with strings, a steady kick, and Faith's voice, which is low and supplicating and then, after a few lines, wide open--a move that Whitney Houston perfected. It still works. We need only a straight dance tune here, and yet, before a minute is up, we are lost in thumping drums and epic guitars, as if Faith were preparing to open for Kylie Minogue or Coldplay. There are some lovely backup vocals, but things get all kitchen sink in a hurry. This is odd cover for a singer who needs none. It's odder still that the song is co-produced by Nellee Hooper, who, with Soul II Soul, Massive Attack, and Bjork, made some of the best pop of the late eighties and early nineties, much of it using clean, sharp sounds surrounding great voices, like Faith's. …

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