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Nina Nastasia

Outlaster

Rating: 3.5/5.0

Label: Fat Cat Records

Cutting through the dark cloaks donned by Nina Nastasia on her records ends up revealing little except that some fabrics are enigmatic enough to raise even more questions after they’re sliced. Nastasia’s folds are composed of fatal blends which should undo songs instead of spinning them as she does; she performs a smattering of pre-phonograph styles without frailty, with the conviction to setting it all to pop music lacking any friendly rhythms.

Outlaster whittles down the specificity of her method to vivid moods and settings that are unmistakable. Sacrificing the tight, then nebulous contemplations of On Leaving and Run to Ruin, she draws minute pictures, distilling them to a beautiful, if at times too luxurious, Gothic crawl. Though she reunites once again with big-wig booster/producer Steve Albini, the album is more clearly defined by Paul Bryan, the young arranger whose own production credits include taking charge of the last two Aimee Mann records and Grant Lee Philips’ Little Moon. While Albini oversaw the mixing, Bryan is a collaborator on the level of Jim White, the Dirty Three drummer whose co-headlining credit on You Follow Me was well deserved. Only instead of gearing Nastasia towards a solid and memorable certainty, as White did, Bryan makes her singing and guitar playing languid and diverse. Ancient minor key folk is still the focal point of each piece, but Bryan’s overwhelming baroque and world flavor are so overpowering that, at times Nastasia seems to be a featured player in his band rather than the leader of the sessions. Her Okinawan folk homage “You’re a Holy Man” has the most interesting results in the partnership between the two. The instructed syncopation Bryan demands of Nastasia proves that her quiet, dark falsetto can stand up to something as particular as a disciplined non-Western beat.

Though sometimes, it is Bryan’s lengthy accents on Nastasia’s lyrical thrusts that take some of the sting out of otherwise potent lyrics. The chorus of “You Can Take Your Time” has a dark punctuation at the end, asking the ballad’s target to “just don’t screw up,” a devastating line that’s overwhelmed by classical strings. While this happens several times, they find the correct flow on the Argentine tango of “This Familiar Way,” which finds the best way to sway her out of being reliably baroque and into blood-boiling harmonies.

This is comforting because sometimes, as much as one can admire her records, they can seem like overly serious business and a study in someone fine-tuning knowledge and abilities rather than the construction of something that moves bodies and sways legs. Some of that bleakness remains on “One Way Out” and “Wakes,” late track additions which hearken back to her earliest work in the beginning of the last decade as a sparse songstress who was slowly gaining the power to project her character. But the best balance between those two eras is on the richly layered string and ascending guitar lament of “A Kind of Courage.” Nastasia sees the value in a large ensemble’s ability to move forcefully and her own capacity to set a distinct, dark magic to any song with an ease and quickness that is rare.

If she didn’t have such foresight toward musical landscapes, the cover of Outlaster – a sketch of Nastasia looking like a movie poster for Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath – would seem a great deal more outlandish. Precisely because she has it within her to conjure up the reliably literary scope of rolling bluffs and lighthouse soliloquies, the album works best as pure musical storytelling. Beneath the candle-lit summoning of swirling sounds and half-realized thoughts Nastasia mingles towards tragedies that only she can comprehend and a narrative which we still can’t cut into.

by Neal Fersko
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