Marissa Nadler: Songs III: Bird on the Water
by Matthue Roth
Marissa Nadler is, to some extent, a diva in the Björk/Bonfire Madigan/Diamanda Galas mold. A straight-ahead singer who sings elusive, haunting songs; whose weapon of choice is a simple acoustic guitar, but whose breathy, sparrowlike voice fades in and out of both the lower and upper ends of the vocal register. Her guitar playing is reminiscent of Pete Seeger’s or, alternately, Woody Guthrie’s—the second song, “Dying Breed,” even begins with sounds like a train station, bells fading in and out and a percussion that may or may not be the clacking of wheels on tracks.
She works in vague metaphors of light and color, with lyrics that might not even make sense, but work magnificently on a purely visceral level. We hear, we understand, although we might still not have any clue what she’s talking about. Light brushes of mandolin, synthesizers, and cello are almost unnoticeable, but accentuate the songs like brush strokes—the slightest noises, but enough to rivet our attention. Nadler’s songs really are mesmerizing, sampling from country, folk, and Old Rock ’n Roll—not rock music, mind you, but that slow, r&b-influenced stuff that synagogue dances were made of, back when Orthodox synagogues still had mixed-dancing dances for the younger generation. The only faltering step on Nadler’s album is a cover of Leonard Bernstein’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” which seems to do to the song exactly the opposite of the magic that Nadler works on her own songs, making the familiar and comfortable seem disjointed and discordant, instead of the other way around. In the greater woods of this album, though, you won’t even notice. Both colossal and light as a feather, Songs III works its slow, still charm like magic, the kind of magic most people don’t even know still exists.