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Marissa Nadler - The Sister

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Artist: Marissa Nadler

Album: The Sister

Label: Box of Cedar

Review date: May. 30, 2012

The vocation of singer-songwriter pulls in opposing directions. There’s the desire to tailor words to the inner voice, and tailor melody to the outer voice, making intensely personal work. Then there’s the pursuit of the universal song, the binding themes, chasing at the tails of "Your Cheating Heart" and "Greensleeves."

Marissa Nadler has followed the pull of the latter, looking for her own cell in the tower of song. With a voice that is clear and nearly flawless, she never pushes it where it might croak or strain. Even now, with her sixth album, it’s hard to tell if she could belt one out, or where the breaking point might be. Her words are the same way. The phrasing is brighter than the moods she conveys, and her consistent melancholia doesn’t describe a specific ache. Her music is haunting, but it’s hard to say what is haunting her.

The Sister sweeps out big gestures right from the start. Opening with "The Wrecking Ball Company," she uses a symbol that has already appeared in songs by Neil Young and Gillian Welch, and the chords trace the waltzing minor changes of "House of the Rising Sun." Singing "you said you’d need a wrecking ball to break the cement around the heart," the words avoid identifying exactly who’s heart is encased. We get hints – pausing the line just before “cement”; “the” is pronounced as “thee.” If it’s her beloved with the hard walls around his heart, she’s not going to accuse. Nadler’s archaic diction works even with the machine-age imagery because she’s always covered up her own personality, floating just outside of reality. We know Neil, forever the skeptical hippy, and Gillian the mountain girl in the city. Marissa is still hard to place.

This is a set of love songs, but without the crushes and confusions of a song cycle, nor the warm self-pity of a breakup record. The quasi-religious imagery of a song like "The Apostle" is well worn, and her fingerpicking is always rolls like a narrow creek. Given these conventions, the whole record should be more inert than it is. It come down to her melodies. They’re spangled things that do well in the locked-in-a-chapel production, and require the weight of the familiar to keep them from lapsing into Cocteau Twins abstraction. Otherwise, they’d dissipate entirely into the ether.

Very little is added to her guitar and voice, but the flourishes are exactly what ground the songs, making them into believable dramas. A drum or cymbal might be hit a few times at the end of a verse, then never again. “A Little Town” has an artificial whoosh that passes back and forth, undercutting the aw-shucks mandolin and trapped-in-Podunk theme. Many of the details would read as Country and Western in another artist’s hands. There’s nothing down home about Nadler, so they have the effect of drawing her out the clouds ever so slightly.

The Sister is a brief album, and a few tracks wisp away into nothingness, but on work like “Your Heart is a Twisted Vine,” Nadler approaches timelessness as well. An Elizabethan melody plays out against a heavily echoed pedal steel, like something old rediscovered, unheard for ages. The narrator chases ghosts while the singer conjures them.

By Ben Donnelly

Other Reviews of Marissa Nadler

Ballads of Living and Dying

The Saga of Mayflower May

Songs III: Bird on the Water

Little Hells

Marissa Nadler

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View all articles by Ben Donnelly

Find out more about Box of Cedar

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