Nina Nastasia

On Leaving

(Fat Cat; 2006)

By Christopher Alexander | 21 October 2007

Being as this is the first Nina Nastasia album to be reviewed on the Glow, and that the New York songwriter has three prior records, a brief history lesson is in order. In 1999, Nastasia and her band recorded an album named “Dogs”, recorded by some dude you may have heard of named Steve Albini. The usually reserved Albini unabashedly praised the record, at length, in print, on several occasions, piquing the interest of one John Peel. Peel played cuts of the album on his show and invited her for a session. “Dogs” was independently released on a run of 5,000 copies, but 2001’s The Blackened Air and the next year’s Run to Ruin were released on Touch and Go. All were recorded by Albini.

Some of our readers view this site as a consumer guide. If so, then please: buy all of these albums as soon as possible. And, while you’re out, buy this one, too. You may need more convincing than that, and your fears are well-founded; John Peel’s seal of approval has no cache with you, and we all know how undiscriminating Steve Albini is. You come to this site to get the straight dope, and who better to trust than the writer who gave the same rating to that Band of Horses record a few months back. That was a good call; we’ve all listened to the record more than once since then, right? Right?

It’s hard not to fall into hyperbole when discussing Nastasia’s music; even Albini was afraid of “making it and myself sound foolish” while giving his props. That quote illustrates the problems with overheated praise: it detracts from the very thing you are ostensibly trying to puff up. In short, it’s egotistical, establishing your reputation by breaking or savaging a record. But it also highlights the problems of discussing records like hers, because no one, it seems, can explain their power properly. Even a basic genre description beggars dispute. One can say, “indie folk,” but then who else with that tag comes even close to sounding like her? Devendra Banhart? The Mountain Goats? Dan Bern? No, leaving aside the fact that she can sing beautifully, Nastasia’s records are far too elegant and serene. The lighter songs are breezier, the darker songs are honed in and shorn of melodrama. Singer-songwriter? Like who, Jackson Browne? Ben fucking Kweller? One fast sees where this is going.

It’s tempting to call the records Americana, if only because they sound loosed from a Gothic, weird America. But Nastasia is disinterested in roots, or more accurately any codified notions thereof. Her band has at one point featured violinists and saw players, but the arrangements are ill suited to Americana’s tendencies of homage, humping some idealized vision of the past. There is a fiddle solo in The Blackened Air’s “The Graveyard,” and it’s a song about haunting, but this is no country song. “I’m so lonely and I’m not ready,” she tells her ghost. “You scared me when you hid behind the trees.” It’s a quiet song until the solo’s completion, when the rhythm section crashes in without breaking the breezy tempo. Yet she sees a darkness, and the arrangement pulls this out of the song, picking up where the solo left. Yet this is no realist hammer she wields, deconstructing one set of lofty goals for some inchoate notion of authenticity. Rather the ideal of the America she sees -- an America she places herself in repeatedly in her lyrics – owes little to any obvious influence, at least as far as this genre is concerned. Frankly, living in these records, as they invite one to, it’s had to see where the points of origin in her music even are. Spot-the-influence in Nastasia’s work feels like watching clouds floating above wind: even when familiar, it’s hard to divine exactly from where they are coming.

There’s that damn hyperbole again. Influences are always there to be found, but perhaps not in the obvious places. One place to start looking would be her own childhood. “Jim’s Room,” the song that opens On Leaving, recalls her father painting pictures of his own cigarette smoke while the young Nina gallivants with (presumably) an imaginary friend. “For a month I wasn’t me,” she sings, recalling in six words the ephemeral identities children try on at will. In conversation I discovered that her father was a painter and her mother a photographer, perhaps explaining the visual strength of her best songs -- take this line from “Our Day Trip”: “Your free hand waving from the gate / The metal shining at your waist / you had so much more ambition.” “Treehouse Song” and “Lee” are reminiscences from childhood, although the former reimagines entire months spent in a tree, “because all that climbing takes such time / and we’d live on the blooms carried in by the breeze.” Childhood is brought up as a deliberate contrast to the album’s other songs, which read as field notes on the attempt to reclaim innocence. “We don’t get around like we used to do,” she sighs on “Brad Haunts a Party.” A parent tells a child to stay where she’s loved instead of leaving “where you’ll never be hungry or lost,” in “Why Don’t You Stay Home.” The plea seems to have some weight: “If we go to the west where I’m from / we are new buds to everyone” she tells a lover on the closing “If We Go to the West.” “If our love is tired / we are young.”

Nastasia’s albums are typically comprised of many songs written in a similar time frame. As such, the way to assign chronology to her albums is with her band. Prior to On Leaving, the arrangements consistently expanded with each record: comparatively reigned in on “Dogs”, they exploded on the fully ornamented The Blackened Air, while the bulk of Run to Ruin was instrumental, if subdued. On Leaving matches its lyrical concerns by scaling back this tendency, returning to the sounds of her first record with only occasional flourishes (though there is a newfound emphasis of piano). This doesn’t seem to be out of the insecurity the words betray; if anything, the songs here need less. “Counting Up Your Bones” and “Why Don’t You Stay Home” are some of her strongest melodies to date. This makes the title misleading: the record seems to be more about returning than leaving. The record is no departure, but when the form is this strong one isn’t needed.