Hollywood-born Nina Nastasia has been around for a decade now but Outlaster marks something of a comeback for her, being her first album since 2007. Nine Nastasia’s name should be around rather more in the near future, however, with a May 10th single preceding a tour of Britain.
The single Cry, Cry Baby, also the album’s first track, will sound familiar to fans, opening with the sparse instrumentation and strong vocals of previous radio hits like Ugly Face. Soon however the string section takes over, with Nina wrapping her pleading vocals around soaring violins to tell a classic story of a discontent person in a loving relationship – “You’re my own true love, but I won’t change”.
The orchestral atmosphere is what separates Outlaster from her previous work. A point was made of arranging the songs for a small orchestra, and in doing so departing from the fragile and sparse sound which characterised her older albums. Yet the arrangements succeed in doing this without entirely losing that character – the album is full and rich sounding when it wants to be, but is never far from dying doing and leaving Nina’s voice to carry the songs.
Outlaster’s best moments can be split into two distinct camps. Songs like Cry, Cry Baby and You Can Take Your Time focus on Nina’s swooping, fluttering voice, backing them up with booming drums, sparse guitar, and violin. By comparison, some songs showcase a feature of her music that separates Nina from countless other female folk singer-songwriters – her theatrically gothic tone. Straight after You Can Take Your Time comes the most over-the-top example, This Familiar Way, a dark tango describing a far from harmonious marriage (“Every day I tear a bit from the one I love, and from the other one I love”).
This in turn is followed by What’s Out There, continuing the gothic tone but separating itself by pitting its sometimes shouted vocals against a remarkable disharmony of sounds in the background, climaxing in a solo that amounts to an almost random plucking of instruments. Unusual instrumentation is a hallmark of many parts of Outlaster, emphasised in the closing title track, which combines it with an almost epic style of poetry in the lyrics. It is an ambitious final song, reflecting the renewed ambition of an artist doing a remarkable job of changing her sparse sound without abandoning her overall style.
Words: Michael Fern