On her recently released second album, The Blackened Air (Touch and Go), New York singer-songwriter Nina Nastasia grapples with the kind of fundamental uncertainty that sinks in when adulthood genuinely takes hold. Several songs are about trying to take stock of the present while shaking off increasingly elusive hopes for the future: "We work so hard just to get things done / Hoping we'll be happier years to come," she laments in "Been So Long," while in "That's All There Is" she chastises a lover, "But that's all there is / So stop all your dreaming / It makes me so sad / Let's keep what we have." Her dark, plainspoken lyrics are set to spartan accompaniment that gives a folk-rock jolt to the old-timey aesthetic of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. The plucked acoustic guitar, slide guitar, bowed saw, and viola hovering around the plaintive melody on "Oh, My Stars" could've been recorded 80 years ago, but her pretty voice sketches the line with a contempory delicacy; "This Is What It Is" thrives on tension created by an insistent cello lick, droning accordion, and walloped drums. Nastasia's singing and songs alike are stubbornly unspectacular, but she inhabits her modest tunes as though they were favorite articles of clothing, and thanks to some impressively empathetic instrumental support, they become truly beautiful. In particular Gerry Leonard, who adds vivid filigree on guitar and mandolin, provides crucial contrast with Nastasia's simplicity. For her Chicago debut, she'll be backed by violist Dylan Willemsa, cellist Stephen Day, drummer Jay Bellerose, and bassist Dave Richards, all of whom played on the album, as well as banjo player Phillip Roebuck, who also opens the Schubas gig. Saturday, June 22, 10 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport; 773-525-2508. Sunday, June 23, 3 PM, Reckless Records, 3157 N. Broadway; 773-404-5080.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Leslie Lyons.