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Nina Nastasia, Café Oto, London, May 23rd 2010

May 26, 2010

My presence at this gig is all down to one song – Jim’s Room, Nina Nastasia‘s opening number from her 2006 album On Leaving. When I first heard it, I was bewitched and listened to it again and again. It still has a strong effect on me – the spooky violin, the sparse guitar and the almost casual vocals. It’s an amazing sound and one helped into existence by Nina’s producer and recording engineer, the brilliant Steve Albini. I hadn’t had a chance to hear her live before, so I made sure I got down to Café Oto early enough to get a seat and a pale ale.

Violinist Matt Szemela hushed the sell-out crowd by playing eerie violin as Nina took the stage and began. We were treated to songs from throughout her catalogue, with three songs from her second album, The Blackened Air, from 2002 – I Go With Him, Little Angel and Oh My Stars – and several from her latest album, Outlaster, due to be released soon. The first of these new songs, What’s Out There, reinforces Nina’s almost middle-European café sound – strong vocals, a confessional style and fine guitar-playing – which is pretty good for an LA-born resident of NYC. The lyrics have a spook to them that never overwhelm the songs or tip them into goth territory, but emphasise a darkness to her music nevertheless:
   Oh window, window,
   I have to smash you out,
   A light above me,
   A light above me,
   And still I don’t feel safe.

Between songs, by contrast, she’s chatty and funny, and even invites support act Stuart Silver onstage to tell a long (and very funny) anecdote about a French toilet… Two other songs from the new album, You Can Take Your Time and You’re A Holy Man are as good as anything she’s done before, and stand well next to two of my favourite songs from On Leaving – Our Day Trip and Settling Song:
   Sleepy-eyed you wait for tomorrow
   And I know that you’ll marry some day
   And I can only lie down as your mistress,
   Because I gave you away,
   Our innocence lost in the plan.

The appreciative audience demanded several encores from her, as she complained jokily about the unusual heat of the evening, saying that two of America’s greatest traditions are iced drinks and air-conditioning. The final encore, Our Discussion (The Matter Of), comes from You Follow Me, her album of collaborations with Aussie drummer Jim White. Her powerful confessional style puts me in mind of the less whimsical songs of Kristin Hersh, one of my favourite female singer-songwriters, and Our Discussion… closes the evening on a defiant and triumphant note:
   But we do not talk of feelings
   And with you I can’t pretend.
   I don’t believe in the power of love,
   I don’t believe in the wisdom of stone,
   I don’t believe in a god or the mind,
   And I’m not alone.

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