Kate Nash at the Bowery Ballroom: Trading pop for punk
A Britpop princess returns with riot-grrrl power
By Robert Christgau
Special to MSN Music
NEW YORK – Kate Nash had the good fortune to come up in the wake of Lily Allen, who made 21st-century pop a fit place for ordinary girls sticking up for themselves. But it was also a misfortune, in part because, unlike Allen, Nash truly prides herself on being ordinary ‑- "attracted to mundanity," as she's put it. That's always a hard sell, and when she followed 2007's award-winning and bestselling "Made of Bricks" with 2010's less striking "My Best Friend Is You," she suffered the usual click-through falloff, which together with the indignities that always fall doubly hard on female pop phenoms left her feeling ticked off. So she broke with her label, hunkered down in L.A., and crowd-sourced herself a riot-grrrl album called "Girl Talk."
When Nash began the two-show New York finale of a three-week U.S. tour at the Bowery Ballroom March 26 (she'll return to America for at least two more weeks in May), the sundresses and keyboard parts of her teen ascendance were gone. This band is all female ‑- her "girl gang," she calls it ‑- and all guitar, with the formerly acoustic-strumming and piano-plinking frontwoman on bass. But though the sound is punk, the look is fancier, not to say glitzier. The gang wore matching black-glitter dresses, their leader a related red-over-black ensemble. Hair was long and straight, and general aspect, dare I say it, cute, but also scruffy. Nor was their music pure thrash. On the older material and the new songs that required it ‑- Nash is a trained Britpop songwriter who changes up "Girl Talk" considerably ‑- guitarist Linda Buratto didn't hesitate to pick out a bold riff or line.
There's a pattern I've noticed at the Bowery: Headliners hit the stage shortly after 10 and play for a little over an hour. Nash went on at 10:10, but she wasn't done till 12:05. Her two hours accommodated 21 songs in all, and by my count not only were eight of them from the newly released album, six more weren't on any album at all. These included a sludgy version of "Cocaine Blues" that I'm informed is entitled "Girl Gang" ‑- "gang" and "caine" are hard to tell apart over a bunch of guitar noise ‑- and the YouTube-only grunge anthem "Underestimate the Girl," which came with a long intro about how she'd written it in preference to going out and murdering somebody. But most impressive was a slow, quiet one she'd written for persecuted Russian punks Pussy Riot. It's called "Free My Pussy," and features an entire verse that goes "Meow meow meow meow."
In addition to singing a lot of songs, Nash told a lot of stories, which even in the absence of guitar noise were hard for a Yank to follow sentence by sentence, although I did come away certain that "feminism" was only her second-favorite F-word. This was too bad but not fatal. Even half-understood, Kate Nash presented herself rather vividly as ordinary yet not, and also nice yet not. She's a second-level star who has always expressed hostility in her music ‑- one of the highlights of her girlish debut album is rendered on the back cover as "D---head" ‑- and was always more staccato vocally than good little songbirds are supposed to be. By the end of the show she'd let her many loyal fans sing the signature "I particularly like CSI" line from the early "We Get On" and jumped offstage to pogo with them as well. She knew her ticked-off sisters craved a taste of girl power, and she gave them plenty.
Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com, and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.
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