Nina Nastasia & Jim White
You Follow Me
ina Nastasia’s latest project, on the heels of her fine 2006 album On Leaving, is a collaboration with the drummer Jim White of the Dirty Three. Recorded by Steve Albini, the album was written by Nastasia and arranged by both musicians. White brings an engrossing versatility to Nastasia’s refined folk narratives, clear from the first track, which boasts an addictive flow, a continuity that is catchy in the way that the genre, these days, hardly ever is. The song isn’t a party; it’s not incredibly fast-paced or happy, but it’s a quiet little witticism, playful yet weighty. The title, assumedly a reference to Nico’s “These Days,” suggests the contrast between the two vocalists—Nastasia’s is warm, viscous, earnest, and down to earth. What White adds to this mix is spice.
But you’ll have to be in a certain mood to enjoy this album—the opposite mood you’d be in for, say, M.I.A. or Justin Timberlake. This is the stuff of unfinished wood floors, uncut trees, duvets, and beginner’s psychoanalysis: Nastasia, like Ani DiFranco, has polished and ornate thoughts, rubbed raw only by her and White’s hollow, simple production. The mastering is not crap, it’s just that there are only three instruments involved—and that’s including the human voice. Mostly this is lovely, sometimes it’s too fluffy and feathery. But as in the case of “I Write Down Lists,” Nastasia creates the most haunting scenarios by bulking up the volume with banshee-like inflections and violent slams to the acoustic guitar, which mimic White’s occasional fury. His work on this track is an important addendum to the emotional urgency Nina has just conveyed in words. The drums have a virtuosic quality, obediently expressive and unstructured to match the winding path of the guitar.
Sometimes White will get carried away, skittering around with marching stutters perforating continuous cymbal crashes, all back somewhere in a corner of the room, watching the singer and her instrument closely. “Said the Doe” flows from “List” with no break, since this is a set sans applause, short, episodic, but wholly unified. And what stands Nastasia apart is that silly ruminative titles like “Doe” are effortlessly defended in lyric: “It looked like it wanted to speak,” she explains in the first verse, her candid stories always told as first- or second-person narration, very accessible and unpretentious simply because she never pushes her voice too far. It’s simply a vehicle more interesting than speech, and has a lot in common with Jenny Lewis’s. Both of the singers suggest that their voices are simply human guitars.
On “Our Discussion,” White simply plays like an aficionado pretending to be a novice, inventive but always sensibe. But this is a track when the kind of production on Feist’s new album would be useful: a bass would be a wholesome foundation-laying addition to the ethereal mix of guitar and drum. The substance of the song, as it is, is too murky, liquid approaching solid but never quite getting there. Then again, the whole of “In the Evening” and moments of “Lists” have the ability to be firm and heavy, stoic in tone and powerful enough on their own. Nastasia’s voice, which is not technically extraordinary, is still efficient and flawless, which makes up for its sort of meatless-meat cordal strength. She is deft at creating subtle yet challenging little pieces in an established melody, seemingly improvised but for the solid backing from the guitar, with the drums continuing to travel on to their own beat.
Perhaps because of the slim lineup sometimes the lyrics, which are arguably the point, are incidental, stopping before the brain at the outer ear. Even the tumultuous ballad “Late Night,” with its howling, animated chorus, is just a vocal showcase, rising up in the scale, skittering down in half-note and three-note steps, and winding back up as the guitar thrashes its metallic, feisty abuses alongside a tornado of drums. The fact is, Nastasia only has a few tricks up her sleeve, but bringing on White’s tricks allows a myriad of ways for hers to be carried out (something to do with multiplication). The album is a winner, an enabler of reflection, stop-and-think patience and prettiness—for those who need it and those who don’t know they do.