Concerts and albums of 2008

Concerts of the year

Here’s a list of the ten concerts I enjoyed most this year. It’s been an exceptional twelve months for live music around these parts, and it was very hard indeed to whittle it down to ten shows. There’s not much of an order to these ten, with the exception of No. 1, which was far and away the best night of music I heard all year.

1. Okkervil River (Porgy & Bess)
2. Neil Young (Austria Center)
3. Peter Brötzmann/Ken Vandermark/Marino Pliakas/Michael Wertmüller (Porgy & Bess)
4. American Music Club (WUK)
5. Marissa Nadler (Vorstadt)
6. Whitehouse (Rhiz)
7. Leonard Cohen (Konzerthaus)
8. Anthony Braxton (Krakow)
9. Heather Nova (Gasometer)
10. A Silver Mt Zion (Arena)

Albums of the year

I haven’t listened to much recorded music at all this year. Take five:

1. Kathleen Edwards – Asking For Flowers (Zoë)
2. Okkervil River – The Stand-Ins (Jagjaguwar)
3. Mary Hampton – My Mother’s Children (Navigator)
4. Original Silence – The Second Original Silence (Smalltown Superjazzz)
5. Anthony Braxton – The Complete Arista Recordings (Mosaic)

Marissa Nadler, Vienna Vorstadt, 3 April 2008

I’ve written at some length about Marissa Nadler‘s bewitching music before (see here, here and here), so I don’t have a huge amount to add by way of reviewing her first Vienna concert last week. Just to say that the show, in the very pleasant and welcoming surroundings of the Vorstadt, was a stunningly effective performance, giving tangible flesh and blood to the rich and sinister carnality of her songs.

Much of the unearthly power of Nadler’s three LPs comes from the treated, reverb-heavy yet still angelic quality of her voice. I’d expected her to take a starker approach to singing live, but in the event the stage set-up allowed her voice to be treated as on record, since she had three separate microphones lined up in front of her. Presumably each microphone had been calibrated in such a way as to provide different levels of echo and reverb. During the set, Nadler flitted gracefully between them, allowing her to vary the timbre of her voice as the songs required. That voice is a thing of rare beauty, all forlorn radiance and strange, unsettling ululations.

Meanwhile, Nadler’s guitar playing was stunningly fluid and ornate, vivifying the dreamlike cyclicality of her myth-steeped texts. Her choice of cover versions was unerring: as well as Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat”, included on her recently released third LP, she also gave sombre readings of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” and Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer”. It was a pleasure and a privilege to hear her transform the songs of these three grizzled veterans into anguished expressions of abject purity.

Ether column, March 2008

The last time Mark Eitzel played in Vienna, it was to 30-odd people at the Chelsea on a wet Sunday night. Those lucky few witnessed a typically quixotic solo performance from Eitzel, delivering his intense songs in a seemingly casual but, in fact, incredibly crafted and passionate way. This month Eitzel is back in town with his group American Music Club, on the back of a new album, The Golden Age. While he probably doesn’t care all that much, I certainly hope for a larger audience this time. Eitzel is a knotty and intractable performer, self-deprecating to the point of embarrassment. For the most part, his songs lack identifiable choruses and hooks. But his voice is an instrument capable of truly wrenching displays of heartfelt emotion, and cuts through you with deadly precision. His group’s blank, neutral name speaks as eloquently of their music as The Band’s did of theirs; AMC inhabit the wide open spaces of American rock, with the guitar and rhythm section framing Eitzel’s searingly honest, confessionally driven lyrics.

Great double-header at B72 this month, with Japan’s Up-Tight and Vienna’s own Primordial Undermind presenting an evening of out-there psychedelic rock. Up-Tight lay down thick layers of guitar-heavy drones, their squalling mantras of noise building into a blissful cacophony that evokes prime-era Velvet Underground or Spacemen 3. And like the Velvets, Up-Tight are also partial to the odd eerily melancholic ballad, providing the listener with occasional respite from the sonic onslaught. Primordial Undermind are an equally bracing proposition, with long, spacey jams navigating the listener into the kind of inner headspace explored by pre-Dark Side Floyd. After 15-odd years of existence in America, leader and guitarist Eric Arn relocated the group to Vienna in 2005. Since then, they have released their sixth album Loss of Affect and continued to mine a richly creative seam of trippy, clangorous music.

Finally, gifted American folk singer Marissa Nadler makes her Vienna début early next month. “Folk” is a barely adequate term for what Nadler does, however. Her recently released third album, Songs III: Bird on the Water, pulsates with a haunted Gothic spirituality, its songs resonating with a deeply unsettling power and grace. Nadler plays acoustic guitar with all the glowing richness of Leonard Cohen or Bert Jansch, while the rapturous imagery of her lyrics chimes perfectly with the angelically pure beauty of her voice. “Oh what a day to dance with you,” she sings, “oh what a day to die”, summing up her songs’ swooning and radiant conflation of love, sex and death.

Marissa Nadler: Ballads of Living and Dying, The Saga of Mayflower May

With these two albums Marissa Nadler establishes herself as a gifted, utterly distinctive folk talent. Both records are full of beautifully wrought ballads, delivered in a sumptuous mezzo-soprano voice and accompanied by sparkling, fluent acoustic guitar.

On her 2004 debut, Ballads of Living and Dying, Nadler delivers on the stark promise of the album’s title. Playing guitar in the richly resonant picking style of Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy, she sings as if from a haunted netherworld. With eight of the ten tracks being self-penned, Nadler draws on seemingly limitless reserves of darkly potent imagery to create ballads of vast depth and eloquence. It’s a measure of her lyrical skill that the closing “Annabelle Lee,” a setting of a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, seems entirely of a piece with her own texts. (“Hay Tantos Muertos,” a setting of a poem by Pablo Neruda, must remain a mystery to a non-Spanish speaker like myself.) Death, sex and lost or thwarted love are recurrent themes, from the tragic keening of “Box of Cedar” to the desolate eroticism of “Bird Song”:

You said my name so sweetly
That I took my clothes all off…
The birds are calling, and I do not believe for me

Throughout these ten short, passionate ballads, Nadler instinctively knows when to foreground her voice and when to let the guitar speak for her. Bathed in unearthly reverb, her ethereal voice frequently gives way to ominous finger picking. Currents of strangeness wander among the songs in the form of floating electric guitar and accordion. On “Days of Rum,” meanwhile, Nadler trades guitar for banjo, sounding for all the world like a time traveller from Harry Smith’s Anthology as she intones the spectral tale of a girl who “was young and yearned to die.” Even when the guitar shifts to more relaxed major-chord strumming on “Mayflower May” and “Virginia,” the lyrics remain defiantly sepulchral: “The waves rush against my face as I start to drown…”

Nadler’s 2005 follow-up, The Saga of Mayflower May, makes occasional glancing lyrical references to her first album, reinforcing the sense that the singer inhabits a hermetic, spiritually enclosed realm. Housed in a gorgeous miniature gatefold sleeve, the album extends and deepens its predecessor’s concerns in eleven further outpourings of intense, supernatural balladry. This time the Hammond organ lends its radiant timbre to three tracks, including the delightful “Yellow Lights,” whose softly strummed backing provides the setting for a mandala of colours – blue water, green grass, red rubies.

The album feels like a visitation from a parallel earth where the mythical has become the everyday, populated by damsels, gypsies and river children. If that sounds unbearably twee, then listen to the way Nadler’s filigree guitar, directly descended from Leonard Cohen’s classic 70s work, swoops and glides around lines like “Photographs of your face against the rain/I’m gonna burn them all and bury your name” (“Damsels In The Dark”).

These are the kinds of records you find yourself returning to again and again, drawn by the dark pastoralism of Nadler’s texts and the dangerous yet irresistible pull of her guitar and voice. Recommended without reservation.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 14, 2005)

Marissa Nadler: Songs III – Bird on the Water

Marissa Nadler follows her earlier Ballads of Living & Dying and The Saga of Mayflower May with this remarkable third album. Bird on the Water amplifies and extends Nadler’s emotional concerns while retaining every ounce of the haunted Gothic spirituality that was the defining characteristic of those albums. Its songs resonate with a deeply unsettling power and grace; supernaturally preoccupied with love, death and loneliness, they avoid morbidity and sentimentality by the richness and variety of their arrangements, by the rapturous imagery of Nadler’s texts and by the bewitching beauty of her voice.

The great Canadian songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen is a looming presence throughout the record. The formality of its title acknowledges the many Cohen album titles that contain the word ‘Songs’; the subtitle alludes to one of his most famous songs, “Bird on the Wire”; there’s a reverent cover of another Cohen classic, “Famous Blue Raincoat”; and Nadler’s acoustic guitar playing is glowingly reminiscent of Cohen’s own before he traded guitars for cheap synthesisers. And just as Cohen’s voice has weathered and deepened over the years, so Nadler’s vocals are richer and stranger than on previous outings. Angelically pure, double-tracked and reverb-heavy, the voice sounds as though it emanates from a centuries-old courtly love tradition, a 1960s acid-folk magic spell and a post-apocalyptic future, all at once.

The other thing that sets Bird on the Water apart from its predecessors is the fullness and variety of its instrumentation. Co-produced by Nadler and Greg Weeks of US psych-folk outfit Espers, the album features hard, unflinching electric guitar from Weeks himself as well as dark cello from his Espers colleague Helena Espvall. The confidence of the arrangements is nowhere more apparent than on the album’s extraordinary centrepiece “Bird on Your Grave,” which begins with spacey synthesised effects over plaintive strummed acoustic guitar, before opening out into a helter-skelter folk rock drama that recalls Fairport Convention at their most lysergic. The electric and percussive agitation subsides, but the landscape of the song has altered. Blasted where it once was delicate, Weeks continues his angsty riffing over Nadler’s pealing acoustic cycles; and the song ends with a further dose of electronic strangeness.

The next track, “Silvia,” adds Dylanesque organ to Nadler’s strong, resonant finger-picking style. The song’s gorgeous melody and lilting chorus hint at a pop sensibility that sits comfortably alongside the record’s more overtly folkish moments. These include the devastatingly sad “Mexican Summer,” on which Nadler’s plangent guitar resounds beautifully around her seductive voice; the blissful, sparkling arpeggios of “My Love and I”; and the delicate mandolin that courses playfully alongside the burrowing guitar patterns of “Diamond Heart”.

Lyrically, Bird on the Water is shot through with startlingly vivid imagery. Nadler has the gift of both familiarising the strange and making the strange familiar; in the world of her songs, the elements of earth, air, fire and water mingle with skin, bones, hair and colours. It’s also an intensely feminine world, in which “I thought of you each time I tore off my gown” (“Diamond Heart”), “I’m going to buy you a red dress and put feathers in your hair” (“Silvia”) and “she died all alone with her feathers and bows” (“Leather Made Shoes”). Stripping away the outward manifestations of modesty and decorum, Nadler’s texts conflate love, sex and death in a swooning current of feverish eroticism.

Nadler sings on “Rachel”: “Oh what a day to dance with you, oh what a day to die.” It’s a line that encapsulates the album’s unshakeable conviction that passion exists and is to be grasped through the infernal workings of tragedy. Songs III: Bird on the Water is a work of radical, deathly sensuality; to hear it is to be changed by it.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 15, 2007)