Short Cuts

Magnolia Soundtrack, Central Avenue Sounds, Sheila Nicholls

Sheila Nicholls
Brief Strop
(Hollywood Records)

In the parlance of Nicholls' native England, stroppy is often used to describe a willful little girl. And it doesn't take long to understand why Nicholls would invoke this bit of slang for her auspicious debut. The ballad "Elevator" contains the following lines: "So we have sex instead/and we go so far and we do that for days/till we're knee deep in cum/dehydrated, exhausted, insane." Ahem.

Although cheeky in content, Nicholls' arrangements are sparing and often beautiful. Brief Strop tends toward showcasing her plaintive piano melodies and supple alto. Comparisons to Tori Amos will be inevitable. But Nicholls is at once more jagged and extroverted than her fellow Brit. "Peanuts" is a jeremiad against the evils of consumerism that sets Nicholls' syncopated phrasing against Luis Conte's energetic conga. Cellists Cameron Stone and Hope Easton drive the frantic lamentation of "Eiderdown," while Dave Stringer's harmonium fleshes out the sweet crooning of "Fallen For You." At the center of each composition is Nicholls' deft melodic sense, which calls to mind the balladry of Paul McCartney on weepers such as "Don't Die on the Vine" and "Perfection." Unfortunately Nicholls' more overt lyrical efforts fall flat. The dime-store feminism of "Medusa" and the naive pacifism of "The War Isn't Working" are not so much offensive as uninteresting. In the realm of the neofolkie, a little strop goes a long way.

Nicholls is a genuine talent, though, and the 14 frisky tracks collected here grow only richer with repeated play. True, the singer may overstate her case occasionally. But at least she has something to say. -- Steve Almond

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