Friday, November 18, 2005 ... 4:37 PM

Haunted Houses: Nina Nastasia's The Blackened Air

It doesn't twang much, but it's haunted as any dark holler: Nina Nastasia's The Blackened Air, which I discovered a few weeks ago while on the hunt for some autumnal music I hadn't heard before. It's that time of year. Cold, damp and bruised.

She's got two other two records, one on either side of this -- all three produced by the great Steve Albini. I haven't heard the third, and the first, Dogs, is pretty mediocre indie pop. It's not terrible. It's just not that time of year.

Here Nina's voice is an abandoned twelve-year-old's going on forty, a bleary-eyed Suzanne Vega, capable of playfulness and an occasional belting, but favoring cool sobriety. Her presence serves the songs, and the songs have a living presence, like haunted houses. They are haunted by fiery devotion, by blunted idealism and the contrails of fast fading youth, by gypsy fiddle and the raspy weeping of a bowed saw.

Consider the adolescent girl's nightmare of "Oh, My Stars", a simple two-phrase tune droned over and over, a jump-rope cadence heard through a fever.

In the den while I sat reading,
I did not see the stranger watching.

My dad chased him down the driveway.
He could have killed him. He wished he'd killed him.

Sirens wailed, floodlights shined in
All the rooms of our house.

Pretty heady psychic brew there, bookended by an image of ice falling from heaven to scatter pigeons. Each of these songs dips into the dark community pool of half-remembered dreams, bad dreams suppressed and daydreams jettisoned. It's a dream about slow entropy in and of the human spirit . It opens with an invocation of feral, cannibal dogs, and closes with an up-all-night waltz about coming to terms with the surrender of big dreams to simply growing older. And, like a character thirty years on from the Springsteen record everyone's strumming air guitar to anew this week, The Blackened Air gives a sincere testimony for steadfast, humble old love in a world that anymore just disappoints us.

We work so hard just to get things done,
Hoping we'll be happier years to come.

I don't know if we'll ever be free like that first year we spent,
But I know I can't live without you.
I still love you.

Acoustic guitars are fingerpicked with hushed urgency, like the spinning of a bobbin. Rock drums bust in suddenly and pummel you just long enough to satisfy the tension. Electric guitars trill along the top, blackbirds on a wire, commenting in trembling sighs or religious tongues. String quartet arrangements reach out to dark ambient spaces around them -- vast but enclosed, as huge and finite as life.



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Making Notes: Music of the Carolinas
(Novello Festival Press, April 2008)
includes my essay, "Link Wray"


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