Little Boots and Pixie Lott may have come along and stolen some of her thunder among the recent spate of London-by-way-of-MySpace pop ingénues, but Kate Nash's sophomore effort, My Best Friend Is You, proves that she's still the best of the lot when it comes to balancing her pop hooks with a compelling persona. On her debut, Made of Bricks, that balance resulted in some fantastically catchy pop tunes loaded with cutting contemporary slang and an impulse toward destruction. But on Friend, Nash's serrated edges cut far closer to the bone and her songs are as likely to be deconstructed as they are to be radio-friendly.
There are no second helpings of "Pumpkin Soup" here: "Don't You Want to Share the Guilt" is perhaps the closest Nash comes to a perfect construction of a top 40 single, but even that song undercuts its cheery arrangement with a narrative of infidelity and second guesses. But Nash is at her best when she brings that vicious bite into what might otherwise sound like a pop trifle. The hook on spectacular opener "Paris" finds Nash chirping, "You'll never listen to me," over an exuberant horn section and pounding piano chords. "Do-Wah-Doo" is even better, a retro-styled bit of doo-wop on which Nash cuts the proverbial other woman down to size. As a misanthrope with a mile-wide mean streak, Nash impresses for her wit and ability to turn a clever phrase: "I used my body and his desperation" sets the scene for "Later On," a song that scuttles along on a delirious synth line that's all forward momentum.
When she rebels a bit too aggressively against pop conventions, though, Nash gets herself into trouble. "I Just Love You More" is atonal, with Nash's affectless vocal performance floating aimlessly over an out-of-tune guitar line. Her poor approximation of Karen O isn't the only risk that doesn't pay off: "Mansion Song" opens with Nash delivering a spoken-word, sexually aggressive diatribe that's all invective before resolving into a shrill tribal chant about never becoming a lady. As a protest-too-much statement, it seems like a reaction to frequent, if largely unfounded, criticisms that Nash is little more than a watered-down Lily Allen.
Where Allen is interested in seeing what the ironic disconnection between her image and the content of her songs allows her to get away with, Nash appears to have her heart stapled crudely to her sleeve. Friend is noticeably less snarky than Bricks, but it bleeds more. And Friend is such a fascinating listen because Nash is clearly not afraid of a little bloodsport.