Thursday, October 11, 2007

nina nastasia & jim white @ mercury lounge, 10/3/07

when you live in new york, the best part of being over 21 isn't being able to drink - it's being able to go to any concert you want. i suffered through high school and most of college, barred from a number of venues simply because i wasn't old enough to drink, and i hated every second of it. one venue i was most bitter at for its age restriction was mercury lounge, 21+ all the time. i couldn't begin to list the shows i missed there. but now, that time is over, and though i've been over 21 for a bit now, my first visit to mercury lounge was earlier this week to see nina nastasia & jim white, who recently released one of my favorite records of 2007, the stunning and unsettling you follow me.

nina nastasia has been flirting with the fringes of popularity for seven long years, since her first release, dogs. dogs became an underground sensation, attracting the attention of legendary dj john peel, who subsequently asked her to record four peel sessions. despite her echelon of respected admirers (among them is steve albini, who has recorded all of her albums), nastasia didn't really begin to take off until touch & go re-released dogs in 2004, on whose success came on leaving, released by fatcat, a stylized yet simple musical collection of everyday vignettes. despite her clear talent and songwriting gift, as well as on leaving's critical success, nastasia remained very much a dark horse in fatcat's stable. nastasia changed tack for you follow me, stripping away her usual accessories and adornments and giving longtime collaborator (and ex-dirty three drummer) jim white equal billing. the result is a record that is deeply unsettling while being characteristically beautiful, white's forefronted drumming dynamic and subtly sinister. though you follow me was released in august, the mercury lounge show on oct. 3 was the album's release party.

the show's original slate featured the band telepathe as nastasia and white's first opener, but, mere days before the gig, they were replaced by castanets. while unfamiliar with first light's freeze, castanets' most recent album, i was excited to see them perform. despite the theft of much of their gear earlier in the year, castanets completed two albums this year, in the vines and an as-yet untitled work, with the former being released october 23 on asthmatic kitty. touted as a herald of the "freak folk" movement, castanets' live show is most often distinguished by the impressive array of guests appearing with mastermind ray raposa. he brought five friends along for this show, including close friend phosphorescent on backup vocals, for a hastily cobbled together set. castanets' thirty minute set was played without a single break, the songs tied together by raposa's guitar, though the set's continuity was so seamless that i nearly believed that they had only played one thirty-minute long song. despite their manifest fluidity, raposa bemoaned the looseness of the arrangement after the show, though a crowd unfamiliar with castanets merely believed it to be a cornerstone of their stylistic approach.

unburdened by conventionality, castanets play songs that soundtrack dreams. ethereal yet grounded, directionless yet focused, i caught myself yawning several times throughout the set, though not from boredom - castanets made me want to become an adventurer in my dreams. raposa's voice carries southwestern inflections which echo through his music, which is homey and comforting, a woolen blanket of sound. from what i understand of castanets' modus operandi, no two shows are the same, since they rarely feature the same instrumental assemblage, and no doubt the next time i see castanets, it will be a different show entirely.

the next opener was secretary feat. big boss, a pseudo-office duo that would have been ridiculous if they hadn't been so good. office music is rapidly becoming trendy, or at least what passes for a trend in the indie scene. while not nearly as popular as "white" this season (white rabbits, white denim), office music is making a respectable showing so far, with chicago's aptly named office leading the way. a little more off the beaten path, we find secretary and big boss, playing a new kind of drum n' bass for the suited generation, except that it's more of a drum 'n bari (sax) kind of thing. formally titled secretary feat. big boss, the duo heavily play up the office theme, secretary dressed in a skirt suit and fishnets while big boss rocked a bowler, three piece suit, and lapel pin. their music also sounds appropriate for an wall street bachelor party, secretary's dark, sensual sax melodies fitting neatly on top of big boss's beats. performing songs from secretary's new release, the secret life of secretary, the duo's appeal was not only owed to their office gimmick; their tunes were deft, trading on the disparity between secretary's smooth sax notes and big boss's glitchy beats. the music is unmistakably secretary's (a.k.a. "moist" paula henderson of moisturizer), it owes much of its appeal to big boss. blending styles from glitch to rumba, his carefully chosen beats perfectly complemented secretary's sax appeal.

at least it beats a liquid lunch as a way to relax.

the same force that transformed nina nastasia's songs from wispy vignettes to unsettling elegies was also the best part of the show. seemingly disengaged and apparently bored, jim white was simply captivating - the most skillful percussionist i have ever seen. his arms and legs moved with an unnatural fluidity that rarely let my eyes stray to the front of the stage. white's contributions to previous nastasia records have been more utilitarian than exceptional, but his multi-rhythmic drumming last wednesday night was one of the most amazing performances i have ever seen. it simply confounded me with its beauty. we rarely think of drums as a full-fledged instrument, relying on them primarily as a timekeeper, their original function. but in white's hands, the kit onstage was transfigured into a dynamic force, buttressing nastasia's melodies but also elbowing their way to the front. it was an absolutely unique experience, to hear drums willingly prioritized over vocals or guitar. thought nastasia remained at the front of the stage, and she and white played her songs, it was a real collaboration we saw, where each took turns sharing the spotlight. such is the quality of you follow me, its most compelling element that you can't quite put your finger on. white doesn't merely add drum lines; he is as much a songwriter as nastasia, a remarkable station for a drummer. and, though his face reflected none of the excitement that i felt upon seeing and hearing the amazing, unique union in front of me, he showed that he could be jolted; his mask-like expression let down its guard only once, when a crowd member yelled "jim! you're hot!" even the stoic white couldn't help but laugh.

though he has worked with nastasia for several albums, you follow me is the first on which he has received equal billing, and rightfully so. his performance, both on that album and in concert, proved that his work on you follow me is not a flash in the pan; he is as much of a songwriter as nastasia is herself. despite his lack of showmanship, it's safe to say that white stole the show, sticks transformed into snakes.

the duo kept a very serious tone throughout the show, as was expected from you follow me's somber tone. nina nastasia, however upstaged by white, didn't seem to notice or care, lost in each song's trance. immaculately dressed all in black, reticent and focused, it was clear that, for her, songwriting is a labor of love. the two performed songs primarily from you follow me, but the biggest applause was reserved for older gems, reconfigured with additional drums. my favorite nina nastasia record is on leaving, and was gratified to hear both "dumb i am" and "our day trip," two of that album's most precious songs. their set closer, the inimitable "that's all there is," from the blackened air, was stunning and epic, the epitome of nastasia's ability.

buy you follow me from fatcat.

nina nastasia & jim white - "i've been out walking"

1 comment:

moist paula said...

Hi -- this is a GREAT review!! Thank you so much for getting it; also, we love the pic -- are we allowed to use it and if so, whom should we credit? Thanks again -- Secretary & Big Boss. ;)