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Nina Nastasia - Outlaster

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Artist: Nina Nastasia

Album: Outlaster

Label: FatCat

Review date: Jun. 17, 2010


Nina Nastasia - "What’Äôs Out There" (Outlaster)


The early word on Outlaster, Nina Nastasia’s sixth full-length, is that it represents a “sea change in musical form”––that the Los Angeles-born singer’s sparse, fragile music has been metamorphosed, through lush orchestration, into something fuller and more accomplished. If, like me, you’re protective of The Blackened Air (2002) and especially Run to Ruin (2003) — records that have only deepened and grown more richly inscrutable with years of listening — you might find yourself wondering what was ever sparse about the bowed strings and percussive clatter of “Oh, My Stars,” the evil violin in “You Her and Me.” Nastasia has always capitalized on full and unusual arrangements, on jarring dynamic shifts. The earlier records aren’t preparatory; they’re terminal. Run to Ruin in particular is like a black hole from which nothing — no light, no air — is allowed to escape.

Still, there’s something different going on here. As album opener and lead single “Cry, Cry, Baby” creaks to life, Nastasia’s languid vocals meet with stately strings, while snare rolls usher the melody through a series of modest swells. Nastasia’s voice has a way of climbing the nape, and when it’s given its first opportunity to lift (“You’re my own true love”), Outlaster’s differences come more clearly into focus. Nastasia’s last outing, her 2007 collaboration with drummer Jim White, was like two people dancing across a high wire — a contest of agility, an exploration of a wobbly brand of balance. Jay Bellerose handles percussion here, and he does so without sharp cracks across the snare rim or kit-quaking fills. Everything else seems to proceed from this commitment to equilibrium.

Which, it should be mentioned, is no easy task with a voice like Nastasia’s; it tips any scale you try to put it on. But the singer seems to recognize this, doing more with subtle tonal fluctuations and an elusive bent to her lyrics. There are a handful of blunt, piercing lines placed well above the instrumentation (“You don’t ever have to make the money” in “You Can Take Your Time”), but they’re less common than they once were. More often, Nastasia’s lyrics are elaborately abstract — textured complements to Paul Bryan’s layered arrangements. “You’re a Holy Man,” for example, mixes muted brass, booming mallets, and smoky, Eastern-tinged accents with pronouncements like “You’re a holy man at the ears of kings / Who give audience to the droll and common things.” For better or worse, this is worlds away from the dirty cashier windows and rural graveyards of records past.

And the songs travel equally vast distances from one to the next. “This Familiar Way” intersperses light bass and fluttering woodwinds with frothing crescendos of pizzicato strings. “What’s Out There” is a lateral step in terms of dramatics, but it trades in the ill-fated romance for Southern Gothic grotesque. Nastasia leads a tour of a hotly haunted space (“A wall, a window / A gnatty garden turning hotly in the heat”) that builds to a claustrophobic climax of shrieking strings and poltergeist percussion (“Oh window, window! / I have to smash you out!”).

If there’s a trade-off it’s that while these songs teem with complexity, there are fewer direct hits. Outlaster is a record that demands appreciation, but maybe not devotion. In the past, Nastasia has shown a knack for twisting phrases — “Call for an ambulance / Hate her like nobody knows” — like knife blades. Outlaster is a touch too fastidious to allow for such moments, but it showcases a new and impressive set of strengths.

By Nathan Hogan

Other Reviews of Nina Nastasia

The Blackened Air

Dogs

On Leaving

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