Thursday, November 21, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1319: Marissa Nadler

For the second time in the last six albums, and the third time in the last 35, I’ve rolled an album by Marissa Nadler. This is what happens when you gorge yourself on an artist’s back catalogue.

Disc 1319 is… Ballads of Living and Dying
Artist: Marissa Nadler

Year of Release: 2004

What’s up with the Cover? “Why did we agree to take this creepy path? Now we’re lost among all these dead trees and brambles having to deal with whatever the hell that thing is.”

“Oh, no – wait. It’s just Marissa. We got separated earlier. Hi Marissa! Don’t worry – she always looks that creepy. It’s her thing.

“So…anyone bring a sandwich?”

Tragically, it was not Marissa and they were never heard from again, although this picture was found on their phone.

That’s the problem with Marissa Nadler album covers. Sometimes it looks like a vengeful spirit but it’s just Marissa in a black dress (see Disc 1314). Other times you think it’s her, but instead it’s a vengeful spirit.

How I Came to Know It: I just told this story five reviews ago, but I’ll assume you’ve never been to my blog (where the hell have you been?) and tell it again.

I heard her new album and it led me through her back catalogue. This is one of the albums that caught my attention.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Marissa Nadler albums and I’ll put this one…second, at least for now. I’ve still got two to review so while I suspect this could end up at #1, I’m leaving room for one of those to wow me.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

At the risk of sounding like a hipster douchebag, I really like Marissa Nadler’s early work. “Ballads of Living and Dying” is as early as it gets.

As Nadler’s first record “Ballads of Living and Dying” has a charm common to many first records; sparse production. Why is this so common? I suspect budget. If you don’t have money to hire a string and horn section, then a string and horn section don’t show up on the record, and if you don’t have time for a bunch of overlays and takes, then you don’t have those either. Not coincidentally, this is why a good sonnet is so powerful; when employed correctly, limitations can propel great art as much as any grander inspiration.

Despite this, Nadler has an ambience in her soul that must be expressed. With the skillful deployment of accordion, banjo and piano mixed in she manages to get her ghost on once again. However, these spirits feel like old ghosts, walking creaky floorboards in Edwardian manor houses. There is empty space for them to haunt. For all that Nadler doesn’t let them wander, keeping them confined to their rooms with tight little three- to five-minute songs.

The sparseness also let me really appreciate her guitar work. She plays most songs with a rolling guitar picking pattern that evokes Simon and Garfunkel songs like “April, Come She Will” or “Kathy’s Song”. Gentle, but urgent like a stream meandering its way through a forest. Never have apparitions felt so…comforting.

Nadler’s breathy whisper also has room to soar. Beautiful throughout, I particularly loved her adaptation of Pablo Neruda’s “Hay Tantos Muertos,” maybe in part because not being able to speak Spanish, I could just fully focus on her vocals trilling through words that sound wonderful in any language. The accordion was also pretty dope.

Hay Tantos Muertos” is one of two poems full of death that Nadler puts to music. The other is Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic “Annabel Lee.” Nadler gives the poem the dread it deserves but loses points in the liner notes for both mis-spelling the name of the poem (she goes with “Annabelle Lee”) and Poe’s middle name (where she opts for an ‘e’ where she needed a second ‘a’).

As you may have guessed at this point, Nadler wasn’t kidding when she named the album “Ballads of Living and Dying” although frankly, I noticed a lot more dying overall. Two of the best songs “Undertaker” and “Cedar Box” come side by side in the middle of the album to underscore this theme good and proper. It was ominous, yes, but never overbearing.

If you want a nice slow meander through some deep thinking on the subject of your own frail mortality (as I sometimes do) this is an album for you.

Best tracks: Hay Tantos Muertos, Undertaker, Box of Cedar, Virginia, Annabelle Lee (sic)

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