Artist: Nina Nastasia
You could use Nina Nastasia’s back catalogue as some sort of modern day benchmark for singer/songwriters – a simple ‘this is how good you need to be, and for this long’. She’s a model for how to create something with gravity from simple means, and for making it all sound so damn effortless. She comes across, like all great narrators in song, as a kind of conduit for big ideas – both in a streetlife soap opera sense, and in a more universal existential sense. And you feel she’s driven to do all this – she keeps on coming on. Despite all that, she’s on record as saying that she was struggling in the build up to Outlaster, that she felt that maybe she’d come to some kind of logical conclusion with her style. Well, not a bit of it frankly – Outlaster is all of Nina and yet something more. It’s got all the usual dramatic interplay of the urban gothic she’s so adept in, but it has a voluptuous sheen, is fuller somehow.
You have to think that it must have something to do with the band Nastasia has behind her, which is stellar to say the least. There’s the unmistakable Albini production (all that space and gravity she has – it’s got the Albini stamp, has had since the beginning, he grants space with his productions style, space for her voice and the instruments to inhabit) but there’s a new face in Paul Bryan, an instrumentalist and arranger who has worked extensively with Grant Lee Phillips and Aimee Mann in the past. He’s added a lushness to the record, coming on at times like Nick Drake’s master arranger, Robert Kirby. Then there’s the band, comprising of long time collaborators Kennan Gudjonsson, and Jay Bellerose, plus the mighty Jeff Parker from Tortoise. They find that perfect pitch, somewhere between dramatic intervention and barely existing at all.
Lyrically, the record seems to very much fit with a sense of crisis, crisis of confidence, of relationships – and the ways in which we fight to stay afloat, alive. She’s never been one to avoid the larger issues, personal or otherwise (‘All Your Life’ from Dogs is about as powerful an anti-heroin song as I can think of) but this seems to be about an expression of some universal angst. It also seems to be a direct thematic response to her last record, 2006’s On Leaving. On ‘A Kind of Courage’ a bleak pastoral (the Nick Drake reference fits again here) she sings of how ‘no one is holding our hand/we are always alone’ (‘no it’s not fair’) and – referencing Dylan Thomas – how ‘that light coming in the door’, ‘don’t rage against it/best to ignore it’ but along with her usual sense of acceptance there is a gentle defiance – we shall endure. On ‘What’s Out There’ there is a similar sense of some larger force pressing at the walls, and as if inspired, she produces one of her strongest vocal performance to date. The track is windswept and dramatic, and she sings ‘oh window, window/I have to smash you out/And let in something mean’. It’s elemental stuff, filled with some pagan power – like some Flannery O’Connor miniature.
But that intensity of vision isn’t all-encompassing, or at least is merely a facet of her total commitment in which she isn’t afraid to pursue an idea to a conclusion, however disturbing. The pay-off is that her proclamations of strength and resolve are equally joyous and uplifting. So when she sings on ‘Wakes’ that she’s ‘got too much left in me/to never wonder if there could be something else’ that sense of endurance (outlasting) is immense. And be sure, despite the tough subject matter, the record as a whole doesn’t necessarily have a bleak feel. Even on the Blackened Air-referencing apocalyptic tango (are all tangos apocalyptic?) of ‘This Familiar Way’ there’s something to cling on to (‘and with each tear/another stitch’). And for the record, ‘You Can Take Your Time’ might be a Carpenter’s track…
So, all-comers, despite crises of confidence, and crises of possibility, Nina Nastasia has added another slab to her bulwark – she will endure, she will outlast; come listen to this before you try anything new.
Go track down everything she's done of course, but for now you can hear the whole of Outlaster on Spotify.
Artist: The Lowland Hundred
Album: Under Cambrian Sky
Label: Victory Garden
All symptoms are a kind of geography; they take a person in certain directions, to certain places and not to others
The Lowland Hundred are the duo of Tim Noble and Paul Newland, currently based in Aberystwyth. They’re named after an area of west Wales that was destroyed by floodwaters in the mythic past. Under Cambrian Sky is their first album, and is a response to the lie of the land (can it be that I’ve never thought about that phrase before?) – both material and immaterial. What the album seems to be performing is a kind of mythic dredging, re –populating the lost landscape and exploring the spectre of place, and the ways in which this absence works a melancholy into the surrounding existing landscape, namely the seaside towns of the area around Cardigan Bay. It makes for a spooked and oddly beautiful album, out of time, full of Romantic longing and placeless nostalgia.
The land destroyed by floodwater seems to be something of an ur-myth, one that is popular across all cultures and periods of history (how’s this for a list?). To add to that exhaustive list, I’ve personally heard it spoken in hushed tones about the land between Land’s End and the Isles of Scilly and more recently there was the deliberate flooding of the Derbyshire villages of Derwent and Ashopton, to make way for the Ladybower reservoir, a situation mirrored in the Australian film, Jindabyne. There’s not really enough space here to worry at why such a collection of myths might have such a pull on our collective imaginations (aside from the idea of the displacement of populations and beliefs, is it a simple myth of cleansing? or given that so many of these myths feature the sounds of spectral church bells, something more figurative like the deluge of our unconscious minds working against the bonds of the super-ego in the guise of the strictures of the church?) suffice to say that the myth has a depth of resonance that speaks both to singularities and beyond site specificities.
There are several variations of the legend that surrounds the destruction of the lowland hundred or the Cantre’r Gwaelod in what is now Cardigan Bay in western Wales. The land was purportedly the most fertile and the most productive in the whole country, but due to its proximity to the sea, was under constant threat of flooding. One Seithennin, friend of the King and renowned heavy drinker, was in charge of the dyke that controlled the amount of water running into and out of the area and by all accounts he was in dereliction of duty on the fateful night, either because of booze intake or due to attending to the needs of some fair maiden. Whatever the reason, the dyke remained open and the sea came crashing through the dyke onto the land, drowning hundreds and devastating some 14 villages. An extraordinary passage by the Rev. G Edwards in an account of the events called The Lowland Hundred, written in the 1840s, tells of how ‘the flood gates were left open and the sea burst in upon the inhabitants many of whom were buried beneath its waves whilst revelling at their banquet and leading in the dance and their songs of joy were turned into a midnight cry’. Legend has it that if you’re in the area on a quiet day you can still hear the cries…
Sonically then, The Lowland Hundred deal very much in such a mode of quiescence – as if the album might be both a haunting and a kind of studied listening. The 7 tracks are constructed from very little – a series of simple piano figures and Paul Newland’s glassy Wyatt-esque voice tend to dominate, backgrounding occasional swells of feedback and the distant hum of wildlife and weather patterns. And thematically, aside from the over-arching subject of the deluge, the tracks tend towards the painterly, with ‘Camera Obscura’ particularly, detailing visual vignettes like ‘children paddling in the Irish Sea’ and ‘starlings roosting underneath the eaves’. ‘The Bruised Hill’ is lyric-less but follows a similarly painterly pattern using field recordings and gentle swells of guitar to great effect. When the moment of deluge arrives then, near the very heart of the album, in the track ‘Picot’ it comes with the requisite amount of shock – the inrush of water coming with a pounding of atonal bass piano notes. The word picot is a diminutive derived from the French verb piquer, meaning ‘to prick’, and like Roland Barthes’ punctum – a figurative wound or piercing caused by a work of art of piece of music – this is a central vortex that drags everything else towards it, a happening that grants the rest of the album meaning.
The odd track out is also the album’s longest. ‘The Air Loom’ is a 12-minute Musique concrète response to the story of James Tilly Matthews, an 18th century political provocateur who became convinced that the government were controlling his mind – and others around him – via the use of a mind-influencing machine, a huge loom that pumped ‘air’ into the ether directed towards specific people and was capable of all manner of tortuous influences, mental and physical: Kiteing, Bomb bursting, Lobster cracking, Thigh Talking, Fluid Locking and Lengthening the brain. Unsurprisingly, though his descriptions were meticulous and almost awe-inspiring in their invention, Matthews was sectioned and holed up in Bedlam, then a ramshackle place of gothic horror in Moorgate (Hogarth’s recreations of Bedlam for his Rakes Progess series for all their satiric intent contain a genuine sense of madness and horror). Here the work of the loom (and Matthews’ reputed madness) is mirrored with all manner of field recordings, whispered voices and manipulated machinery, to create a quietly unsettling piece of work.
That I’ve now crapped on for the best part of a 1000 words about this record is testament to the fact that a) I can’t help but run at the mouth with this stuff, stuff that tracks our melancholy obsession with place and displacement, our obsession with ghosts – historical, ahistorical – our obsession with a shared cultural heritage that’s both specific and universal, and b) that there’s so much to say. But I’ll shut up now and just ask that you track this down – it’s too intriguing and odd and too damn good to miss.
Album: The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton
Label: Asthmatic Kitty
Ischia is an island in the Bay of Naples in the Tyrrhenian Sea. It’s been inhabited by all sorts – Greeks, Syrausansa, Romans, Turks – mostly drawn by the impregnable geography, plus the hot springs, and the throb of the island’s tropical greenery. William Walton came to Ischia in 1946, pulled by the same magic, and bought the Villa La Mortella in the west of island and immediately set about planting a labyrinthine garden. When he died in 1983 his wife Susana took charge of the by now dense and burgeoning vegetation and opened it to the public. Padma Newsome, composer, violinist and, for now, Clogs’ de facto auteur, spent some time in the garden in 2005 – as part of a residence funded by the Fromm Foundation – and was enchanted/spooked enough by what he saw to put together The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton. It’s the first Clogs record for five years and whether there is some dark channelling afoot, or just a natural progression, it’s something of a departure for them, and something of triumph.
The most obvious change on the record is the presence of so much vocal interplay – from Shara Worden’s strange, piercing falsetto to Mat Berninger’s gravel tones. They’ve had whispered passages before now (‘Light me a lantern/ In your lighthouse, my keeper’), but nothing so obviously song-like. Indeed ‘Last Song’ is pretty much as conventional as they’ve ever sounded. It’s a gorgeous track though, given that extra power by Berninger’s Lowell-referencing gravity. The other major surprise is how baroque and, yes, pretty it sounds – there’s the typical Rechian minimalist rhythms, the meshed undertow of strings, various guitars and Rachel Elliot’s stately bassoon, but the surface flits and darts, with flourishes dragging the ear left and right. And even though the record explicitly references a meditation on the natural world, you still find yourself reaching for warm and flighty adjectives.
That the album has taken some five years to appear is due to the bands set-up: an array of talents built around the core four of Padma Newsome, Bryce Dessner, Thomas Kozumplik and Rachel Elliot, with the latter three resident in the States and Newsome in a remote corner of Victoria in Australia. They record where, and when they can; and when their collaborators can manage it. Which should make for something of a mess – but not a bit of it. Given that it was composed as a suite, and given the obvious and disgusting amount of talent on display, it’s a very complete record. It’s tempting to focus on the Berninger track just because it feels like a breakout track, but in truth the highlights are the single Newsome-sung track ‘Red Seas’ and those sung by the astonishing Worden: ‘On the Edge’ ‘Adages of Cleansing’ and ‘The Owl of Love’. The Padme song is a signature Clogs track with that tell-tale lilt provided by Kozumplik’s rolling rhythms, the latter two are chamber pieces flung heavenwards by Worden’s voice. ‘The Owl of Love’ would be ridiculous if it weren’t so breathtaking – ‘I am the owl/the owl of love/by night I suck it in/I suck it in/by the day/start with morn/I breathe it out again’. One wonders what happened in the garden…
As an evocation of a particular place it’s hard to be too critical as I’ve never been to the fabled garden, but The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton is a brilliantly realised and ambitious cycle of songs. One of the great things about this is the fact Clogs albums by rights probably get far more exposure than they would otherwise do – thanks to the presence of Dessner (and Berninger by extension). Christ knows what the unsuspecting might make of these at times bloodless exercises in minimalism and captured emotion, not to mention the vaulting cries of Marina Warner. You’d hope they’d be as transfixed as the rest of us.
Download/Listen: Clogs - Red Seas