Producer Steve Albini is best known for the skill which he is able to make music sound raw yet precise, sparse but not isolated, and explosive but not overblown. Clearly this seems like a style that would be best suited to bands that are already powerful and energetic, and indeed much of his most famous work has been with that type of artists: Nirvana, Big Black, The Pixies, Bush…However, often overlooked and even more impressive is his work with dour and shy singer-songwriters. On Palace's Viva Lost Blues, perhaps the best example of this, Albini untamed Will Oldham's country-tinged folk and allowed it to burst, resulting in one of the most powerful and exciting recordings of the 1990s. Albini considers his work on Nina Nastasia's The Blackened Air among that of which he is most proud, and rightfully so.
Singer and guitarist Nastasia's songs have much of the same eerie honesty and subtle excitement of Oldham at his best -- and then some. Her voice sways between innocence and conviction, rising and crashing like a wave and then gently returning. She breaks easily into falsetto, but never at the expense of her own assuredness. Without a touch of rasp nor operatic perfection, Nastasia's vocals lead the punctuated and unconventional instrumentation with tremendous precision. As violins leap from whisper to shriek, Nastasia remains even-keeled, conducting by inflection. Guitar is Nastasia's main songwriting tool, but its role here is secondary (but crucial no less) and serves more for mood than it does melody. Her timid plucking on "Oh My Stars" gives off a weepy innocence, and at times the sound of her right fingers scraping against the coils of her strings nearly overtakes the strings' actual vibrations entirely. Drums, played by Jay Bellerose, bear the heaviest Albini-trademarked tones. They are often mixed louder than other instruments, but are never at the forefront. The snare is sharp but echoey, and cymbals crash with chaotic temperance that only Albini is able to capture. The musical saw is used infrequently, but when it appears rather than crying for attention it tends to keep to itself. And the balance between all of this is right on.
The Blackened Air is not quite a concept album (although it is packaged as "Nina Nastasia's…The Blackened Air"), but it is bound lyrically by common themes and certainly by a unified tone. Each song speaks directly or indirectly of the uncertainties of passion and fear, and the ensuing moods. Lyrical content builds evenly and touchingly along with music, but not jarringly so. On "This is What it is," Nastasia's cryptic and haunting allusions to loss and memory are backed by a quick snare-led marching beat and cinematically quickly bowed violins. As the chorus begins, the violins lengthen out, the drums grow louder, and Nastasia delicately begins her guitar line as she forcefully sings "Take it out / Start again / Close it up / Be the one / You are beautiful / I couldn't take a bigger bite of it." The build is bombastically exciting but not distractingly disordered. As with many songs on The Blackened Air, this one is relatively brief, and not a second is wasted.
Many of Nastasia's songs alternate between major minor keys, including the last song, "That's All There Is." While it is perhaps the most conventional, nearly poppy, song on the album, it is also the best. It opens with just Nastasia and a gently strummed acoustic guitar as she sings a one-sided dialog of her life's disappointments. A saw howls as she confidently proclaims "There's nothing wrong with us / We still belong." Then, as drums and bass enter, the chorus find Nastasia's inflecting each syllable as if it were a story in itself. As she sings "But that's all there is / So stop all your dreaming / It makes me so sad / Let's keep what we had," Nastasia emphasizes the last word of each clause, inserting anguish and sincerity. "So stop" becomes a punctuated "s'stop, " and "had" is held and chillingly (and slightly) trilled. It closes with the only guitar "solo" of the album as Nastasia meanders bluesily as the volume fades.
From the beauty of its liner notes to the passion of every word sung, to the elegance of her name even, Nina Nastasia has created a tremendous work of art. While it will likely be overlooked, The Blackened Air deserves to achieve the deified status of a Viva Lost Blues or even an In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Although she seems more like Quarterstick material, Touch and Go have scored a major coup by signing Nastasia. One can only hope that the record-buying public will reap the rewards of this phenomenal new regime.
By Sam Hunt