Album review: Nick Punal's Revolution
“REVOLUTION is Nick Puñal’s first fully produced album. After several years and many trips to Sound Dog Recording Studio recording a song here and there (with plenty of breaks in between) the album finally came together in 2009.” These are the introductory words to Nick Puñal’s official blurb & credit sheet for his new album, Revolution.
The most striking facet of this album release is that it’s only available to download, through iTunes. Those who prefer the more traditional approach of a CD release would likely frown upon this venture, but a line has to be drawn between what is traditional and that which is practical. No one these days – particularly a self-funded artist – is expected to release his or her music on vinyl. The iTunes release is a crafty and intelligent way of selling and disseminating this music. For those who purchase the album, for $16.99, the album is readily accessible in mp3 format on one’s iTunes (and iPod), or computer system in general. The downside to this method of dissemination is that the booklet and lyric sheet are not so readily available. But Nick would gladly email anyone the credit sheet, cover, and lyric sheet as he has done for me. The other problem is that the songs appear to be available in mp3 format only. Most people would be aware that the mp3s tend to sound flatter and more “metallic” than standard audio files, and that’s to be expected given they are roughly 10% the size of ordinary audio wav files. But perhaps there is a method to stretch mp3s to wav files that I don’t know of. In short, I’d have to say that a finely recorded album such as this should be available in some way in wav file – I’d certainly love a copy!
The other tangential aspect of Nick’s album – setting it apart from most other albums by singer-songwriters – lies in is his liberal use of invited musicians to record his songs. Nick is a fine singer and guitar player who’s handed much of the recording duties to a wide-range of pro-level musicians who not only play on these tracks, but sing lead vocal on them also. There are 14 tracks on Revolution, and Nick sings lead vocals on only six of these, with one of these being a duet. (There are two instrumental tracks inclusive of the 14.) There are some tracks in which Nick doesn’t play or sing at all. The result is an album with great track-to-track variation that, most importantly, maintains a unified thread or sound throughout it. If you were to look at the cover of Revolution, you can see that Nick has the word ‘Songwriter’ printed under his name, implying that he’s interested as promoting himself as a songwriter, more so than merely a performer of his own songs, of which he does very well anyway. Nick Puñal produced the album, and with the help of recorder & engineer Stewart Havill (who performed/sampled all of the drums & percussion tracks on the album), he’s created a clean, vibrant sound that’s at once varied in its song-to-song arrangements and yet unified in its overall concept and vision. Nick had Revolution mastered by Sven Tydeman @ Kitty Groove Productions in Sydney, Australia.
‘9 out of 10’ is the perfect song to start the album with; it’s excellently crafted pop-rock in the vein of U2 with a smudge of Blur or Oasis. Nick Scerri himself, on lead vocal, has some resemblance to Bono, and in another way, doesn’t sound too different to Nick Puñal either. It’s a track that builds up from the piano intro into a verse that becomes wildly exciting as it moves into the chorus with its abrupt major to minor key shift, with Stewart’s drums adding a vivid compliment that lends to this song a Britrock flavour. An impressive vocal range is required for the song that moves from the lower-sung verse passages to the higher tenor of the choruses. Gav Fitzerald’s and Nick Scerri’s “fuzz” electric guitars add the appropriate sonic burst in the choruses. This is brilliantly crafted and produced rock, with its tension-building pre-choruses moving into the exalted choruses that have a most rousing effect upon the listener.
‘What’s up with you’ features Erinn Sherlock and Ben McFall sharing lead vocals, on a lively song with clever lyrical perceptions on relationships. This is a bubbly song with a fantastic sing-along chorus and a brilliant middle-eight, similar to those of Neil Finn. The songs effervescence is helped along by Stewart Havill’s percussive, rollicking piano in the choruses and Ross B’s poppy, soul-influenced bass lines.
Erinn Sherlock took lead vocals on ‘Yes Man, delivering a bright, energetic vocal performance. The song is underpinned by a late-80s/90s dance production. The programmed ‘active’ sounding bass and incessant drum-patterns lay out the dance grooves. The arrangements are generally sparse, aside from the vocal breaks when the horns and Stewart’s piano come to the fore. Lyrically, ‘Yes Man’ is a wry, lighthearted take on a character akin to Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman). ‘Yes man’ a great, expertly produced, dance track.
The title-track ‘Revolution’ moves into a more traditional folk-rock feel, with Nick Puñal taking on the lead vocal. Like ‘9 out of 10’, the song builds up from a relative quiet verse into a rousing chorus, and featured again is another inspired middle-eight akin to those middle-eights that feature on Crowded House’s first album. The use of sampled background “revolution” vocals and cannon noises are used to good effect. Nick Scerri’s Edge-like electric guitar and Martin Mambraku’s deft, intelligent touch on bass all help to make ‘Revolution’ another great sounding track, with their classy musicianship adding much texture and colour. Nick’s acoustic guitar provides the track’s bed of sound.
‘The call’ is a vocal skit featuring Erinn Sherlock, Nicky Blaze & Stewart Havill that segues into ‘Pray as you run’. ‘Pray as you run’ is another clean, lively sounding pop-dance track similar in vein to ‘Yes Man’ that maintains its openness and humour. This is a gangster song about being on the run, and the urgency or tightness of sound is enhanced by Nick’s fast strumming on his Ashton acoustic guitar. Nick tells me he used the Ashton – rather than his expensive Maton – to achieve that closed-in effect. Also enhancing this song are the background, spoken vocals underpinning Erinn Sherlock’s terrific lead vocal. ‘Pray as you run’ is indicative of the superlative production inherent throughout the album, and Nick’s great songwriting.
‘Slave to pleasure’ features Nick Puñal on lead vocal and it’s a song in particular that showcases his wide-vocal range. His humorous-sounding vocal intro to the song is sung down in the lower range of the bass-clef. By the chorus he’s leapt up almost two octaves! This is as good a place to point out that Nick is a fine lyricist with natural writing ability. ‘Slave to pleasure’ is classic pop-rock with excellent musicianship from Andrew Clermont on mandolin and bodhran, Sebastian Salz on bass, and Stewart’s drum programming; a lovely song with a pleasing chord progression and melody-line. Sebastian’s bass duels quite wonderfully with Erinn’s vocal at the outro, a good example of inspired musicianship.
“Espanyol (Blue and White)” is Spanish euro-pop to a tee!! This is a blatant soccer team fan’s song that makes for great listening, partly for the wonderful production, partly for Nick’s lyricism and background spoken words and sounds, and also for the beautiful, rousing middle eight that’s musically quite brilliant. Incidentally, the middle eight has Nick speaking the soccer team’s history, an excellent piece of narrative that fits snugly into the section. Whoever it is that composed & performed the keyboard parts, either Nick or Stewart, did an excellent job of aping the classic Mediterranean Euro-pop sound. Deservedly, Nick is receiving good coverage of this song on his website that is dedicated to the soccer team.
On a vinyl disc, ‘On the road for you’ would come in as the 1st track of side 2, as it’s a fresh start from the rousing finish of ‘Espanyol’. ‘On the road for you’ moves firmly into classic, G-major, country pop. Andrew Clermont’s fiddle, which is featured in the introduction and throughout the song, adds that Spanish element to the sound that is never (and naturally) totally amiss from Nick’s music. This is superb, a four-chord wonder. Professional writers in Nashville would spend a lifetime trying to write a song like this, and Nick Puñal has done it. It’s a song that’s bursting with craftsmanship and inspiration, and has the perfect chorus with a terrific balance between its commanding melody, performance, and heartfeltness. The 5th chord of the song, the B7, sounds so good as it comes in toward the end of each chorus. Andrew Clermont’s dazzling musicianship is showcased during the song’s “square-dance” coda, with him performing both banjo and fiddle that are in effect, dueling with each other musically. I played bass on this track and was pleased and honoured to have been asked to play on one of my favourite songs of the “songwriter” crew!
‘What can I do?’ is beautiful, tender love song with a stirring melody. Nick Scerri’s lead vocal is superb – his is a great singing voice; warm, rich, and totally controlled. Rachelle Medley’s backing and answer vocal is also wonderful, again, inspired and warm. Naz Klendjian’s nylon-string guitar sits well with Stewart’s piano playing to create a rich track that swells wonderfully, enhancing the rich, yearning melody. This is wonderful, stellar ballad, which has remnants of Sting’s music of the mid-to-late 80s.
Nick Scerri takes the lead vocal on ‘Love is just a game’ and in all honesty, I can’t really tell too much difference between his vocals & Nick Puñal’s. This is another brilliantly crafted song, a little reminiscent of U2 – a kind of British feel peppered with a doleful Spanish flavour, with an emotive melody and chorus. Nick Scerri’s vocal scales the tenor heights in the middle eight, and his electric guitar solo rocks the song along – he’s a great guitarist. Nick plays some fine picking acoustic guitar and Peter Suoss underpins the song with a solid bass.
Nick sings ‘Un chico con problemas’ in Spanish. It’s a song that reveals the more passionate, emotive side of Nick’s musical character. It’s an awesome track, an album highlight amongst many considerable highlights. The flavour is totally Spanish, or Mediterranean, with Naz Klendjian performing flavoursome nylon-string amidst Nick’s buttery strummed acoustic – performed on his lovely solid-Blackwood Maton jumbo to tremendous effect, particularly as the song builds with Nick’s vocal becomes more impassioned. Ross B’s bass is recorded to sound more like a double bass, with the bass notes counterpointing the emotive chordal movements. It’s a brilliant song that again, showcases Nick’s great composing and performing talent. ‘Un chico con problemas’ is a little reminiscent of some of the sounds and styles of Sting’s ‘Nothing like the sun’ album of 1987, a reflection of the masterful, professional production that Nick and Stewart have given to this album.
Nick Scerri takes lead vocal on ‘Running out’, backed by Richard Starr’s piano. In itself the piano showcases the rich, emotive chordal shapes of ‘Running out’. Again, it’s a Sting-like piano ballad, showcasing Scerri’s lead vocal, Starr’s piano, and Nick Puñal’s great songwriting.
‘Espanyol’ is the closing track of the album, and is an instrumental version of the earlier ‘Espanyol (Blue and white)’. This track showcases Stewart’s production, great drums & bass, and keyboard parts. You come away realising that Stewart Havill is a great musician as well as a brilliant engineer and producer.
You almost feel it’s a shame that Nick doesn’t release this album in CD format as the songs and production are so good that they warrant promotion, access and dissemination in every way possible. The songs are very much ‘studio’ songs and part of me wonders what the songs would sound like, and how they’d develop, if Nick were to hypothetically jam them organically with a band, and with live drums. But this is at moot point. Nick’s songwriting and craftsmanship, his talent and cleverness, shine brightly on Revolution, as do his production skills and his artistic vision. He should be proud of this album, an album that fuses his sharp lyrical and pop sensibilities with his English and Spanish roots. To put it up alongside Sting’s ‘Nothing like the Sun’ album as far as production and composing go, is a big call, and I’ll hold to that. Revolution is available through iTunes and Nick can be visited and contacted at http://www.myspace.com/nickpunal or firstname.lastname@example.org.