Nina Nastasia
On Leaving
2006
B



critics are so often interested in where the musician resides, where they have been, and where they were born, almost as an act of courtesy, but also a means of affixing that artist to a precise context. But so often the work defies regional pigeonholing, which has the effect of shaming us for thinking that anything can particularly “sound like” New York (where Nastasia resides), or North Carolina, or Eastern Europe. There is certainly a group of instruments, structures, and perhaps even a lexicon, that we can assign to those places, but we risk flouting the individual or group behind the music, so concerned are we with how they fit into a trajectory.

It isolates the musician—or rather, insulates them—to be considered by those who only make an occasional glance at the scenery. Roots and mile markers are certainly interesting, but the psychological scenery a musician transposes is the manipulation of a biography into music, and often it is more interesting to simply ignore the facts. Forget the resumé, forget precedent—we may revere On Leaving as but a series of fleshed-out post-it notes, written in elegant hand and brimming with emotional aptitude. The majority of Nastasia’s guitar-and-piano bit parts are full bodied and masterful, overshadowing many big-footed leading ladies’ recent folk releases.

Just with the warm, blustery introduction, “Jim’s Room,” we are reminded of a power too often siphoned off to literature: a highly personal vision, once transcribed, can awaken the imaginations of thousands of people in as many distinct ways. Hearing the discreet conviction of the melody to “Jim’s Room,” I imagine the setting of Fargo––it must be the mouse-like skitters of the thin string section, which charms like a creaky floorboard from start to finish. But the beauty of this spooky environment lies in its ambiguity; its sensual, nostalgic effects, different for all, are how it relates to the ear, and how Nastasia relates to us.

The already impressive guitar work of this album is decorated with zest by the piano, present on nearly every track. “Our Day Trip,” a startling one minute and fifty-five seconds long, is a glittering romantic hypothesis. Somehow, in the time it takes to travel one subway stop, Nastasia imagines the loping anticipation, climax, and denouement of an episode that will probably never happen. She gives us the sweet satisfaction of simply being able to analyze a possible failure: “Your free hand waving from the gate / The metal shining at your waist / You had so much more ambition.”

The scenery depicts longing, while the music suggests strength. But regardless of their musical accompaniment, Nastasia’s lyrics are progressive, productive—working towards a firm conclusion, even if it’s a hopeless one. The “if”s of the album, of which there are many, are incredibly confident: Nastasia butts up against impossibilities with a voice that shimmies and meanders, but never breaks or softens. The flickering guitar melodies and here-and-there pinches of piano on tracks like “Lee” only reinforce the singer’s dogged determination to simply figure it out. On Leaving is, therefore, work—for 39 minutes we are watching a mathematician parse a formula, or a poet compose a stanza, but we are also gifted the end product. Nastasia’s particular quandary is neatly mapped for us in twelve proverbial, illustrious scraps of paper, seeing to it that the only journey of any relevance is the one from the artist’s head to ours.



Reviewed by: Liz Colville
Reviewed on: 2006-09-14
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