Saturday, February 28, 2009

Review: Marissa Nadler - Little Hells (* * * *)

Boston-based singer/songwriter Marissa Nadler has consistently impressed with her beautiful, yet haunting, brand of folk music over the past five years. Her ethereal voice and often dark lyrics make her unique among her peers and have brought well-deserved critical acclaim. Her fourth album, Little Hells, is set for release next week and includes guests Myles Baer, Simone Pace (Blonde Redhead), and Dave Scher (Farmer Dave).

The beautifully sparse "Heartpaper Lover" opens the album with Nadler's dreamy voice relating a lonely love ballad over only some quiet wurlitzer. It's simple, yet gripping, and the style is found all over the record, especially on cuts like the warmer, acoustic "Little Hells," the striking "Ghosts & Lovers," and the piano-led "The Whole Is Wide." Each of these tunes float gently along without percussion and few instrumental embellishments, leaving space for the songs to breath and the focus to remain on Nadler's heartbreaking stories. As captivating as these moments are, however, the album benefits from some welcome variation. Several tracks on the record add a full band's worth of accompaniment to expand Nadler's signature style and the results are equally great. "Mary Come Alive," with its fascinating combination of drums, synths, and programming is eerie and almost sinister, while album highlights "River of Dirt" and "Mistress" lean toward a more traditional folk-rock sound.

While Nadler covers quite a bit of dark territory on the appropriately titled Little Hells, the album succeeds because of the balance achieved from the (relatively) approachable, less dreary material. That's not to say that anything on the record could be considered 'light listening,' but as she sings 'goodbye misery' on the final notes of "Mistress," a welcome glimmer of hope breaks through the haze of loneliness and doubt, a contrast that enhances, rather than detracts from, the generally bleak feeling built up over the record's 42 minutes.

Marissa Nadler has made what is not only another solid album, but a step forward and up as she continues to sweep us gently away into a world all her own. Little Hells has quickly become an early favorite of mine in the folk genre for 2009.