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REVIEW: Nai Palm – “Needle Paw”

Nai Palm, singer and guitarist for acclaimed Australian neo-soul quartet Hiatus Kaiyote, has been making a name for herself with her beautiful voice, tasteful playing, and eccentric style ever since her band’s amazing début record, Tawk Tomahawk, back in 2012. She and her bandmates have gone on to become one of the most beloved and influential young bands in the music scene, being revered even in the progressive music community.

Needle Paw is her first foray into solo ventures, and a highly courageous one at that. Only recorded with Palm on both guitar and vocals (alongside a few selected guests, such as her live background singers), it’s a stripped-back and vulnerable collection of new compositions, re-arranged Hiatus Kaiyote songs, and covers. Touching on styles like folk, soul, gospel, and jazz (let alone the obvious world music influences permeating the opening and closing tracks), I can’t imagine anyone not being touched by the raw, sincere beauty of this album.

“Atari” opens with a single strummed guitar, stringing note after note into an interesting pattern before we are treated to the most predominant element of Needle Paw: precisely layered and absolutely stunning vocals. Not only on a technical, but also on an emotional level, this is very impressive and gripping; it’s not often that you see the main atmosphere of a song being created with the voice, with the instrument(s) only adding supplementary bits and pieces. By the way, this song, in its original form, was sampled by Kendrick Lamar on his 2017 record DAMN. Named after the Japanese short-form style of poetry, “Haiku” delivers more of this intriguing role-reversal. The background vocals are particularly interesting here, so don’t just focus on Palm’s wonderful delivery, even if that’s harder than it sounds.

Moving along with the topic of samples, “Molasses” might sound familiar to people who, like yours truly, listened to Anderson .Paak’s Malibu a lot after it came out last year. The ‘Might not/might not get/might not get/any better’ hook was featured in the song “Without You”, and once you’ve heard this version, you’ll without a doubt understand why: it’s just that gorgeous. Palm herself called this album ‘the skeleton of a Hiatus Kaiyote record’, and the veracity of this statement is most evident in the songs she re-appropriated and re-arranged for it. With her tasteful, slightly unorthodox guitar work being ever-present, even though it’s not always at the focal point, and her vocals having more room to breathe and unfold, we are allowed a rare glance at how a song of her main band might sound before the rest of the members get their hands on it. And it’s glorious.

If you would’ve told me that someone would make a medley out of David Bowie’s “Blackstar”, Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song”, and Hiatus Kaiyote’s “Breathing Underwater”, I would probably have looked at you weird for a moment. But now, after having heard it multiple times, I can say that it works perfectly! The “Blackstar” portions of the song especially caught me off guard. Stripping away the experimental noir aesthetic of the original, they see Palm at her most commanding and confident, which might lie in the somewhat incantation-esque feel the lyrics have to them. The parts she took from “Pyramid Song”, on the other hand, are far more subtle and not as easy to spot. Woven together with the guitar-only version of “Breathing Underwater”, which is at the very least every bit as magnificent as the full-band one, both covers make sense in a whole new context.

You would be forgiven to think that, given the limited instrumentation and therefore repetitive stylistics, Needle Paw might get a bit boring towards the end of its runtime. The opposite is true, however; take my word for it. You see, there isn’t always a need for a full orchestration. Art sometimes flourishes because the artist set certain boundaries for themselves, and that is absolutely the case with the record at hand. Nai Palm, with the help of her guitar (which she used to maximum effect here, by the way, employing various tones, textures and approaches to the instrument) and the guest vocalists, has conceived an intimate, comforting and enthralling body of work. Needle Paw is AOTY material for sure, and I’d love it if you all would make an effort to at least check it out. It’s a special record that deserves your attention.

 

Score: 9/10

Notable Tracks: “Molasses”; “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)”; “Atoll”

FFO: Lianne La Havas, Hiatus Kaiyote, Anderson .Paak

You can follow Nai Palm on Facebook, and if you enjoyed Needle Paw, please support her by purchasing it online or at your favorite record store.

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