Album of the Week: Sunny Side Up, Paolo Nutini

Paolo Nutini’s voice sounds like a leather boot. It’s wrinkly and creased, but surprisingly flexible and resilient. More than any other instrument, it’s the singer’s sweat-soaked delivery that is the centerpiece of 2009’s Sunny Side Up.

Fittingly, it’s Nutini’s opening “hey!” at 00:09 that uncorks “10/10,”  an effervescent, cocky aperitif that promises musicianship and energy in equal parts as the album settles into its first course.

The organ-driven “Coming Up Easy” proudly wears its soul on its sleeve. Crisp, compressed guitar tones on the offbeats and a bari sax fill out the sound and call to mind vintage Stax and Muscle Shoals. It’s a textbook genre exercise that you could be excused for thinking was a Mark Ronson song. But Nutini is more than a tribute act—he’s a clever, gifted lyricist. His lyrics skew impressionist, which suits him well: “Sunday morning/got the hazy, hazy janes/I turn to you and inhale you where you lay.” He writes in such a way that you could be excused for thinking the song is about a break-up, and it is, in a way: “Hazy janes” is Scottish slang for marijuana, and the fact that the song reads equally well either way adds an element of depth to the whole production.

He hits deep soul territory with “No Other Way,” which is an Otis Redding-inspired howler that boasts a layered production and long legato horn lines.

“Pencil Full of Lead” finds Nutini and his band, The Vipers, working in a slightly different medium. It’s a 1920s jazz sendup that wouldn’t sound out of place on a mid-90s Squirrel Nut Zippers album. By either metric, the song isn’t terribly hip, but the muted trumpet line drips attitude, and the blistering harmonica and saxophone breaks swing the song so hard that the point is moot.

Like Van Morrison, Nutini—who is actually Scottish, despite his Italian matinee idol name—adroitly channels the powerhouse sound of classic American music, with fat horn hits and dynamic vocal performances. But he doesn’t indulge in the idiom throughout the record, and the big sounds of the disc’s soul songs alternate with more subdued arrangements that luxuriate in sonic simplicity and space.

“Growing Up Beside You,” for example, swaps horns for an accordion and dense, chorale-like vocal harmonies that contrast nicely with Nutini’s rough voice and wide vibrato up front.

“Tricks of the Trade” is my favorite of these quieter songs, which draws on an open guitar tuning and an Everly Brothers two-part harmony that manages simultaneously to sound like something you’d hear at your local open mic night and something that was dug up out of a vault of folk recordings. “We can see life hand-in-hand/the green, the blue, the rough, the sand,” has always been one of my favorite lines on the album.

If there’s one criticism that can be leveled at the album, it’s that Nutini seems to have difficulty uniting his two styles. His best effort at some sort of hybridization is track eight, “High Hopes,” which pulls together the orchestration of the soul tracks and a restrained, more spacious sonic setting. The pairing of flutes and quieter winds coupled with the peppy acoustic bass line and mixed percussion creates an identifiably original fusion. A reviewer from the BBC referred to it as “spiraling South American folk-gospel,” which is maybe not a bad way to put it.

Though it would be nice to have a litte more of this hybrid flavor, Nutini and his band offer a record that is by turns fun, cathartic, and soothing. The fact that the soul songs are a bit derivative doesn’t detract from their fun. And, to ape Stevie Wonder, with a voice like Paolo’s ringing out, there’s no way the band can lose.

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