'Anything to stall what's coming - Who wouldn't take that pill? Baffles me.' Nina Nastasia's disdain for life's dire consequence and fascination with immortality gently unfolds in her latest accomplishment, 'Outlaster', sung in tones both dulcet and stern.
Her first album in over two years, 'Outlaster' is an achievement of staggering beauty by an artist of pervasive, quiet influence undergoing a sea change in musical form, and follows up her previous two full-lengths for FatCat, 'On Leaving' (September 2006) and 'You Follow Me' (May 2007).
Recording once more with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio in Chicago, Nina engaged Los Angeles instrumentalist and arranger Paul Bryan (prod. / arr.: Grant Lee Buffalo, Aimee Mann; instrum.: Allen Toussaint, Mavis Staples, Lucinda Williams and many more) to adapt her songs into a score for a small orchestra. Then Nastasia and her long-time companion / collaborator Kennan Gudjonsson assembled string and woodwind quartets, finding the perfect complement with drummer Jay Bellerose (T-Bone Burnett, Joe Henry, Nina's critically acclaimed 'The Blackened Air' and 'On Leaving' albums) and Chicago guitarist Jeff Parker (Tortoise). All in all, a dream band.
The title makes it plain: 'Outlaster' comprises ten tales of perseverance, both bound to and in defiance of the inexorable course toward a fixed but unknown future. 'Moves Away' a short vignette, hints at the perils of leaving one life for another, furthered by 'What's Out There', a fantasy on the horrors of dwelling in seclusion. 'This Familiar Way', Nastasia's first tango, bemoans the fate of a tenuous love triangle. The title track depicts a lonely soul adrift on a polar seascape, the lament of one who has outlasted even the natural term of her own life.
Descriptions of Nina's recent works, often put as 'lean', 'sparse', 'delicate', do not capture the spirit of 'Outlaster'. It is work of lush sophistication that, with no loss of distinction or economy, transcends the reach of Nastasia's famed spareness. The orchestra takes a more formal approach with Paul Bryan's powerfully affecting score, hearkening back to the likes of Gil Evans and the late Phil Ochs. Burnished with lustrous horns and reeds bolstered by a dynamic string ensemble, this record marks a distinct shift as much for her record label as for Nina Nastasia herself. Throughout FatCat's richly diverse catalogue, you will not find another record like this.
Though the signposts of Nastasia's sensibility are still present: songcraft impeccable but not fussy, lyrics intelligent and provocative but not overly enamored with their own cleverness, her work continues to startle and intrigue even Nina Nastasia obsessives. 'Outlaster' might be an unsettling and revelatory experience, like reading a book that you've only seen film adaptations of. Such is to say that Nastasia's music feels like 'the real thing' - something often but only superficially imitated. She is, to quote Interview Magazine, 'the rare artist who creates a new form from which others will copy.'
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