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Nina Nastasia - On Leaving

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Artist: Nina Nastasia

Album: On Leaving

Label: FatCat

Review date: Nov. 6, 2006

Nina Nastasia’s Run to Ruin from 2003 is just over half-an-hour long, yet it folds more menace and mystery into those minutes than most records twice its length. By taking the gothic mid-American trappings of The Blackened Air for a stroll around the twin bicoastal centers, Nastasia accomplishes something amazing – the soundtrack to a kind of modern daylight noir, with all of the ferocity and sadness of a great Robert Mitchum movie. Her fractured narratives tiptoe past grimy cashier windows, paper-thin motel walls, and broken glass boardwalks, into the lives of individuals who can’t escape their lonely urban peripheries. Nastasia possesses a voice so hauntingly expressive that it gets away with dancing over a few plucked strings, and when it gets to tangle with the gnarled orchestration of cello, saw and thundering mallets, the results are almost too good to be true. Run to Ruin is a Haley’s Comet kind of record. Maybe Dogs sounded more fully realized to the pairs of ears that were lucky enough to hear it in 2000, but Run to Ruin makes it seem like studies for a master canvas.

On Leaving suffers a similar fate, but this time Nastasia seems conscious of her fix, because she makes an effort to shift scales. Where its predecessor got straight to the point with an eerie swarm of strings (“We Never Talked”), On Leaving opens with a taut clutch of lonely, throbbing guitar notes, setting the tone for a radically stripped-down release. And because the record’s front-loaded with an astonishing song (“Jim’s Room”) it seems destined to work. “In the back of the house in the room I used to sleep / I woke up and smelled burning wires” Nastasia sings, her quiet acoustic notes yielding to crinkled, bowed strings – the kind of eerie flourish her records always manage so well. In fact, many of the familiar elements reconvene: Jim White’s impressionistic drumming, the Albini-engineered immediacy, the occluded glimpses of Denis Johnson-style misfits (“The only place she let you smoke / There you spent most of your time / Painting pictures of smoke"). But they evanesce just as quickly.

Too much of On Leaving is like the track that follows “Jim’s Room” – the ponderous, piano-driven “Brad Haunts a Party,” whose pounding ivories leave Nastasia’s voice sounding uncharacteristically anemic. Throughout this record, her glances are too straight-on, or at least they sound that way without the sudden tectonic shifts of symphonic backing or the aversion to predictable verse-chorus-verse structures that distinguishes so much of her music. Songs like “Our Day Trip” (“Can you stay with me and tell them you’re sick? / I’ll pack us a meal for our day trip”) and “Treehouse Song” (“Our address was in the sky / just a roof of woven reeds”) are pleasant but disappointingly slight. The lyrics lack the indirectness of so much of The Blackened Air and Road to Ruin, just as the piano-embroidered instrumentation skims the surface of what the singer’s band once plumbed with all of its clawing and scraping. Nastasia’s more than capable of working in this radically stripped-down mode, and there are places where her voice is as riveting as ever – the lonesome, inchoate calls of “Bird of Cuzco," the soulful, spiraling reflections of “One Old Women.” Unlike Run to Ruin, however, On Leaving’s thirty minutes feel like half-an-hour.

By Nathan Hogan

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