In the right hands, a drum set can become a magical instrument. Freed of the bourgeois shackles of keeping time, the colours and atmospheres that can be pulled out of that taut skin become surprisingly evocative. Entirely instrumental, if we were much in doubt. And Jim White may be the best of the musicians on the circuit today to prove this point. The drummer for the beloved Australian instrumental group, the Dirty Three, White has also contributed as a session musician with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Cat Power and Smog. He’s also worked with Nina Nastasia on her past two albumsRun to Ruin and On Leaving, as a percussionist. But it was really White’s idea to pursue a true collaboration with the New York indie-goth songstress. You Follow Me‘s the eye-opening result.
This marvellous album really is a collaboration. I can’t remember when I’ve heard such a frank engagement between instruments. And though the songs feature just guitar, voice, and percussion the sound is always fully realised. That’s partly due to the subtle expertise of engineer Steve Albini, (who’s worked with both Nastasia and White in the past), but credit’s also got to go to the two musicians, who use their instruments to compliment and also to extend each’s natural range. So we get shifting percussive patterns emphasizing the vocals and, refreshingly, sizeable pauses and even actual silence.
On “Odd Said the Doe”, this is put forward as a reflexive slowing at the end of the refrain, accelerating into the verses. In any case, when Nastasia interrupts the song to declare, “Come on man, have a little faith” it’s a climactic moment. By and large, these songs don’t really conform to regular song structures which is a good thing, because there is a certain level of engagement needed to get the most out of these compositions. Sure, they’re often melodically beautiful; but just as often these skittering/swaying lines defy casual interpretation.
In her darker moments, Nastasia still has the gothic poetry of Nick Cave or, to pull a more contemporary and female reference, Lavender Diamond. Lyrics-wise, the standout track “Our Discussion” may hit hardest. As she contemplates leaving her lover, Nastasia meditates on belief. Over the course of the song, the line “I don’t believe in a God with a mind” shifts to “I don’t believe in a God for the mind” and finally to “I don’t believe in a God or the mind / I’m not alone”. It’s both beautiful and somewhat arresting. At times, this sense of strung-out, despite-itself beauty is reminiscent of Blonde Redhead, although of course Nastasia & White’s sound is much more stripped down.
Established Nastasia fans will find some of her signature dark folk/gorgeous melody, though not perhaps in equal abundance as on Run to Ruin or On Leaving. “How Will You Love Me” is the album’s moment of sweetest melody. A simple guitar arpeggio is the main accompaniment but notably the drumbeat is the last thing you hear, overtaking the easy folk guitar, and racing ahead out of time to become an odd, slightly combative end to the song.
More so than any other element, it’s White’s virtuosic drumming that steps out from accompanying role on You Follow Me to share equal limelight. From the stuttering patter providing colour and meaning to “I came to you / I came to know you” on “There Is No Train” to the swooning march of “Late Night”’s final declaration: “I may be the one who’s gonna save you”, White demonstrates every time he picks up sticks he’s in charge.
We’re lucky to have CDs like You Follow Me, which are clearly motivated by a spirit of artistic exploration and dialogue sadly missing from so many big label and even mainstream indie releases. Here’s hoping this collaboration will continue to bear its complex, wonderful fruit.
- Various tracks Player