Any streetwise New Yorker keeps the secrets of their fair city close to the vest. They would never tell a tourist about the stellar hot dog joint Gray’s Papaya, never give up directions to discount fashion mecca Century 21, and they certainly would never tell you about Nina Nastasia. After two sublime albums of Appalachian folk-pop gorgeous enough to cause Gillian Welch to pack up her banjo, Nastasia is starting to make a name for herself. The secret until recently is that Nastasia had recorded and released three, not two albums. Her first album Dogs was briefly released in 1999 by Socialist Records and based upon the fervor generated by live shows the coffers were quickly emptied. As luck would have it, Touch and Go were able to get their hands on the masters and Nastasia’s debut is back in print five years after its initial release.
Counting backwards from three has never been this wonderful. Unlike her second album The Blackened Air, the musical equivalent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or her third, Run to Ruin, which paid stylistic homage to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Dogs is a whirlwind of whimsy. The arrangements consist of similar instrumentation and sound to her two subsequent albums, but the tone and subject of her lyrics is much lighter and more joyous. Nastasia tackles the simple acts of childhood with bright-eyed enthusiasm (“Judy’s in the Sandbox”), contemplates the simplicity of being a canine (“A Dog’s Life”), fantasizes about a potential suitor (“A Love Song”), and discusses her ability to manage difficult situations by utilizing her sunny disposition (“Stormy Weather”). Even in singing about damning subjects like death (“Underground”), a fear of recognizing your surroundings (“Oblivion”) and a dead animal carcass (“Roadkill”) the words seem to roll off both her tongue and psyche with little pain.
This light and carefree tone transcends her lyrics and burrows into the musical arrangements on Dogs as well. All three of her full-length albums have been produced by reluctant legend Steve Albini, and his work here might be some of the finest in his career. Instead of transforming Nastasia into something other than her natural self (as he did with PJ Harvey and Nirvana), Albini simply lets the tapes roll and captures the natural essence and spirit of Nastasia’s charm. His biggest task here is keeping the instrumentation spare so that Nastasia’s voice and compositions have ample room to breath. While Dogs is exceptionally consistent in tone, the standout takes are “A Dog’s Life”, “Nobody Knew Her”, “Underground” and “Roadkill”. These tracks make good use of acoustic and guitar, gentle percussion and violin. Occasionally electric guitar enters the mix (“Nobody Knew Her”) but it rarely registers since Nastasia’s presence is so mesmerizing.
There is a sugarspun quality to Nastasia’s vocal delivery that recalls Tanya Donelly (who Albini worked with on the Breeders Pod album). She merges the divide between pop, country, gospel and soul with amazing aplomb. While she doesn’t have the range of a vocalist like Neko Case, Nastasia uses her voice as an emotional tool to sell her songs in a manner that escapes the majority of her contemporaries.
New Yorkers are a cynical lot by nature. Who can blame them? We’ve pretty much got it all. On a musical front we’ve had Frank Sinatra, John Coltrane, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, Suzanne Vega, Lou Reed and countless others. When you’ve got such an expansive musical culture it’s easy to pass on your artists to the world and release them of their burden as citizens of Gotham. In the case of Nastasia, let us hold onto her for a little longer. Since we just now have her brilliant debut Dogs it seems only fair. Give the day-trippers the Rapture, the Strokes, Interpol or anything else they want. Just keep Nastasia for the locals a little longer.
// Notes from the Road
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