Nina Nastasia and Jim White

You Follow Me

(Fat Cat; 2007)

By Eric Sams | 6 November 2007

I listened to Nina Nastasia's You Follow Me exactly twice during the past weekend, each time as I slowly traversed the rolling highways veining the ruined majesty of the American Midwest. The first time I was heading home, toward a lazy but eventful weekend among family and old friends. I was slightly aware of the responsibilities that lay behind me, but more focused on palpable August haze, its weight comforting. The mood was one of mild anticipation tempered with a tinge of my ever-present traveling partner: inexplicable guilt. The second time I was returning down the same highways, now strangely ominous, to my comfortingly bare apartment in Pittsburgh. The haze had burned off hours ago, charring the sky to a slate gray, and the wheedling gnats of obligation that comprised the prospect of the oncoming week feebly attempted to make their way into my head through the emanating cloud of my post-hangover reverie.

The bookend stages (often marked by travel) in any given weekend or summer highlight are separated by infinite gradations on the emotional spectrum. They are linked only by their respective acuteness and their mutual distaste for the other. The abandon with which we embrace such experiences is tempered only by the dread of returning to the doldrums that inexorably await at its end, and the dread upon facing the week is aggravated by the lack of moderation of the weekend past. You all know what I'm talking about. Yet my two such trips shared a third connection, identical in its strength and grace and nebulous beauty: Nina Nastasia's ethereal ghost rode shotgun.

In each drive, with each listen, this album cut through my two diverse malaises with ease. The mental cobwebs cleared, the hum of road outside faded, and my breathing grew shallow; it was time to listen. You Follow Me is understated, but it has no interest in adapting to the mood in which you find yourself, nor does it settle for altering slightly the tenor of a given emotion. It is not to be used to, say, calm your unease or enhance your brooding. This isn't Jack Johnson; it's not music to relax to, to throw on for the long drive home. However, this is also far from the most evocative or exciting record you will hear this year. It is just obviously and uniformly excellent from start to finish. Nina Nastasia and Jim White demand one thing from you: your full attention. And if you give it you will be glad that you did.

The focused energy of You Follow Me is generated by simplicity. There are only three elements in every song on this record: an unobtrusive acoustic guitar track, White's innovative drum kit, and Nastasia's strong and pliable voice - but this is not minimalism. Minimalism connotes the pushing of some theoretical envelope inward toward the fewest elements with which one can generate something recognizable, possibly even original. This isn't that consciously minimal LegoT aesthetic. Everything that needs to be here is here. There is, perhaps, less than you might have expected, certainly less than On Leaving (2006), but the wholeness of the record is unassailably true on first listen, only becoming more evident with each subsequent spin; even when the guitar gets lost like an afterthought in the friction between Nastasia's vocals and White's skittering drum, narrowing the three elements to two; even weighing in at a gaunt 31 minutes, this record overflows with sound and meaning.

If Steve Albini's production is to be credited in this result it is simply for having the wisdom to let the entrancing artistic dynamic on the record to develop unfettered, just as Nastasia and White intuitively take turns cordially yielding the floor, allowing the other's virtuosity room to bloom and meander. It has been noted, quite correctly, that White is a collaborator and not accompaniment here. He's right there in the title and he deserves to be.

But first things first:

Nina Nastasia is possessed of a breakneck melodic volatility that comes from complete and effortless control. Unlike some similarly influenced chanteuses Nastasia's voice never loses purpose beneath the charm of its own tremulous spell, does not assume that sweetness is a necessary bedfellow of soft delivery, and never hums impotently to a close. She is propulsive and electric even at a whisper. She can aim it like a spotlight, narrowing her focus down into a passage, a word, a syllable on which to explode.

On "I Write Down Lists" she breathes a falsetto chant so serenely that you barely hear the steel fingers creep up its spine until the vocal notes have become, by sleight of hand, a hardened and authentically chilling wail. When she sings the line "I moved into this house alone," on mid-album track "In The Evening," the last syllable -- and only the last syllable -- rings with an unnatural hollowness not hinted at anywhere else in the song. She slides so seamlessly between coy, bitter, exultant, and resigned on "The Day I Would Bury You" that only a close listen to the lyrics (something that happens only around the third or fourth spin, after you've managed dig through the facets of the sound) reveals why the song is so moving. You Follow Me is rife with this kind of infinitesimal nuance, and each is expertly set against Jim White's avant-garde rhythms.

"I Write Down Lists," "Our Discussion," and "There Is No Train" are, despite what the mix might intimate, as much Jim White tracks as they are Nina Nastasia tracks. His complex and arrhythmic percussive fields are the still, dark waters over which Nastasia's voice hangs like a disembodied spirit. White's drums dance around the interstitial spaces where conventional beat strokes are meant to reside; a snare conniption here, a momentary brushed cymbal seizure behind the truncated chorus there, a rapid clicking roll on a rim to cap us off. The effect, especially on these three songs, is of hearing an album recorded amongst the creaking cogs and switches of an ancient clock, or, when the implied beat comes through with more strength ("I've Been Out Walking," "How Will You Love Me"), from inside the wooden pyramid of a malfunctioning metronome.

The sum of these (admittedly few) parts is nothing short of mesmerizing. It is an alchemy more than potent enough to place it atop my year-so-far poll; it's the highest score I've doled out since becoming a CMG staffer. Yet, this is an album that doesn't need to dazzle in order to astonish and so is prone to possible under-appreciation. The intensity here isn't exactly manifest; it is folded into the structure of the songs and chemistry of the performers. It could be missed, but not by those who are even halfway listening. Nina Nastasia might be killing us softly, but there's no debate that she is absolutely killing us.