By Tim Midgett
Nina Nastasia's debut album, Dogs, charts a girl's uncertain course from childhood to high school drama and on to the shaky heights and murky dregs of bohemia. It's a trip plenty of others have taken. From Janis Ian to Liz Phair, the innermost thoughts of young women have been well chronicled, sometimes excruciatingly so. But Nastasia's record resonates not just within her own little life, within her circle of Manhattan friends, among people of her gender and age. Dogs is a cosmic example of its type, if it has a type at all, for it has something of the pearl in it: a pure form, universally apprehensible but resistant to being pigeonholed. It's beautiful not by design but as a matter of course.
A record that is both this grand and this humble can't spring from pet conceits, a new synthesizer, or an unseemly fondness for Rilke. It has to spring from the simplest and most basic reason to play music: a need to communicate. But even that's not enough: good intentions have yielded so many lousy singer-songwriter confessionals that many of us have run screaming in the other direction, embracing artifice with relief. Women face special obstacles in this area, as female offenders are indulged at times by a pervasive emphasis on sisterhood rather than achievement. For every Joni Mitchell, there are ten Laura Nyros, and for every Laura Nyro, there are a thousand Alanises-in-waiting. Still, even the talented musicians among Lilith Fair participants bob their heads to the alternately maudlin and piercing crap their comrades present as art. Blanket support may have once been necessary to encourage women to express themselves, but the impulse to provide this support has come to preclude thought. Worse, it has created a glut in which a record that actually gets everything right can easily get lost.
With nothing more than good intentions, you might end up with Dogs...or you might end up with Jewel, whose great failing is an apparent inability to realize the yawning gap between her earnest lyrics and their cloying musical settings, between her "honest" words and her syrupy geisha-girl voice. The disconnect between her professed intent and the end result is fatal. To unveil your heart is a precarious trick, and the challenge is more complicated if the heart isn't simple--not merely filled with rage or melancholy or lust. A lot of masterful hard work is necessary to pull off a record that explores a range of human feeling, or a particular complex nest of feelings, and still feels totally effortless.
Meticulous arrangement is evident on Dogs, as is the care taken by the players--session musicians who've played with artistes from Natalie Merchant to David Bowie--to create a distinctive ensemble sound. The largely acoustic group rocks ably, but the players ignore most of the rock template, as if it isn't quite good enough for them: their dynamic sense comes from chamber music and their rhythmic sense from jazz, and electric guitar, rock's old standby, serves mostly as a foil to the double bass and fiddle.
The musicians have at their disposal the kind of nuance available only to professionals, and the subtlety of their playing might fail to invigorate lesser material. But the last thing Dogs sounds like is a record that was labored over. It just happens--not past tense, not happened and was recorded for posterity, but happens, on the spot, every time you play it. The songs run long enough to say their piece and no longer. They're rife with little pleasures: An adept, slightly sawn violin, first solo, then doubled, cuts through a subversively creepy playground reminiscence. A bowed saw provides a keening counterpoint to Nastasia's clear, wistful voice. Too many beautiful double bass parts to count. One blinding, Richard Thompson-inflected electric guitar lead, right where it belongs. The choices made by Nastasia and her group are so apt it's rarely apparent they have been made at all.
Nastasia's lyrics are artless in the best sense, and her singing is likewise uncontrived. Most of the structures are bedrock simple, though the delicate, minute-long apology "Dear Rose" and the roiling "Underground" in particular are distinctive despite their accessibility. Yet time and again, Nastasia's approach and the approach of her group transform her material into something more than merely charming. On the page, "Oblivion" reads a bit like a tame cutting from The Bell Jar: "I'm here in oblivion / I don't feel anything / When it's time to begin again / I won't remember anything at all." Tori Amos might writhe seamily through those lines, making them bit players in one of her doom burlesques. Sarah McLachlan might allow the words to escape only after coloring them gravely, in love with the sound of her own voice. Nastasia just lets go of the lines like she's carrying on a conversation (the way she sings everything else), but she lifts each half line up, almost hopefully, liking the idea of oblivion more and more, until the final bit ("at all") brings her back down to earth. In the verse that follows, the song's cranky undertone is accentuated by what sounds like someone playing piano with a shoe. Cannily.
The songs are so expertly written that Nastasia can essay some stock subjects and still reveal something important about them. In one of her young-death numbers, "Nobody Knew Her," the singer sulks over a romantic slight at the song's beginning ("I don't care if I ever see his face"), but her petulance is dissolved by the kind of dumb tragedy that happens almost yearly in small towns around graduation time. The focus rotates cinematically from the narrator to the friends to the dead boy ("drinking beer out of Coke cans" behind the gym and "saying 'what a waste'") to his unknown companion in death, never lingering long enough to lapse into sentimentality.
Other songs take less subtle but equally effective approaches to hoary subjects. Not one but two songs refer to heroin, yet Nastasia and her band push that tired bohemian bromide into respectability and magnificence, using different types of musical brute force. In "Jimmy's Rose Tattoo," a reliably drum-heavy rave-up does the trick. In "All Your Life," it's a beautiful, cruelly short coda: quiet but firm pulls on a violin bow elegantly drag the song down into the soft, weird gutter that dope provides its victims.
Nastasia doesn't belong in the same bucket as a lot of the people mentioned in this review: as surely as Bob Dylan and Tiny Tim share only weird voices and unmanageable hair, Nastasia's gender is all that links her to most of her would-be contemporaries. Her album's subject matter is all that links it to Tapestry or Exile in Guyville, both perfectly reasonable examples of a genre that Nastasia transcends. Her inherent modesty prevents the sentimentality of the former or the exhibitionism of the latter. Unfortunately, her modesty also conspires with the limited resources of her tiny label, the NYC-based Socialist Records, to render Dogs the most shamefully underappreciated record of the last year. But I know I'm not the only one who buys copies by the box and hands them out to all my friends, so perhaps that will change.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Leslie Lyons.