Record review: Nina Nastasia, ‘Outlaster’

This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Signal to Noise magazine’s winter 2011 issue.

nastasia-coverNina Nastasia

After recording four solo albums, Nina Nastasia gave equal billing to drummer Jim White on her 2007 record You Follow Me — an unusual juxtaposition of strong percussion with acoustic guitar and vocals. Three years later, Nastasia is back with a different sort of collaboration, combining the elegant sounds of a chamber orchestra with her folk rock. Arranger Paul Bryan (who’s worked with of Aimee Mann and others) adapted Nastasia’s songs for string and woodwind quintets. Drummer Jay Bellerose has played with Nastasia before, but his work on this album is most reminiscent of the distinctive beats he has provided in the past for Sam Phillips. Jeff Parker of Tortoise played guitar, and producer Steve Albini captured it all at his Electrical Audio studio in Chicago. Outlaster masterfully mixes all of these elements — often shifting back and forth between strummed guitars and exquisite orchestration within the course of a single song. The strings and woodwinds bring out a wistful quality in Nastasia’s voice. On many of these songs, beginning with the lovely opening lullaby, “Cry, Cry, Baby,” Nastasia’s understated vocals in the verses fly up into a higher register for the choruses. The remarkable number “This Familiar Way” begins with little more than a whisper, before bursting out into a string-quartet tango. The closing track, “Outlaster,” is a pensive lament with a melody resembling an ancient sea chantey — and maritime lyrics to match. Describing a sailor, Nastasia sings: “At peace from drowning, far out he sings: ‘What can forever but misery bring?’” At this moment, the strings and drums are whispering, too — giving space for Nastasia to cry out quietly for the lost sailor. That delicate balance is what makes this album one of Nastasia’s best so far.