Monday, January 26, 2009

Nina Nastasia & Jim White- You Follow Me

On the way home from work I was listening to Animal Collective's first album, Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished. The album was billed under 'Avey Tare and Panda Bear' though it was technically Avey Tare's album. However, he felt Panda Bear's percussion and drumming were so crucial that he decided to give him co-billing. The nature of such collaboration is an interesting one: a duo of someone (who will be entirely responsible for the melodic content) and a drummer/percussionist. On that album, while Avey Tare is off in his own wonderland of synthesizers, acoustic guitars, noise loops, bass sounds, and yelps, Panda Bear employs brushes on the drums, giving them a soft, sprightly feel that matches the eerie, experimental nature of the music. Still, I don't know that I'd say the drumming/percussion is an essential element of the album. It's only about 1/3 of the overall sound and you wouldn't lose much if it was gone. With You Follow Me, though, Nina Nastasia gave Jim White co-billing both because it was a collaboration between the two and because his drumming is as important as Nastasia's acoustic guitar and singing.

You Follow Me is the sort of music I might be moved to describe as fascinating if not quite transcendent. The problem--if this is a problem--is that I'm not sure White's drumming makes the songs better. Panda Bear's drumming made the aforementioned album better, but I don't know if White's does. Certainly it's easy to listen to this album and imagine he wasn't there, that it was a stripped down Nina Nastasia only release, but again, I'm not sure it would make the songs better. What he does make them is different, more challenging and experimental than they might have been otherwise. While Nastasia sticks to her acoustic guitar and voice, White employs a rolling, freeform, improvisational style that accents and weaves around Nastasia. It is drumming as texture and reactionary duetist more than it is the traditional role of a drummer as time keeper or source of rhythm. An initial impression of the album will probably strike you as sounding like they recorded these songs live and the first takes were used; Nastasia sounds well rehearsed (these are her songs, after all) with White being the obvious spontaneous element, seemingly having not heard these songs before recording.

When the two work well together, the album is excellent, sublime music. 'In The Evening' is a mid-album shot in the arm, with White pounding out a scattershot beat skidding along Nastasia's chunky guitar chords and powerful vocals. 'Late Night' sees her working from near silent restraint to full on howls, White's drumming matching her move for move. And 'I Write Down Lists' is the most successful meeting point of White's more free improv drumming and Nastasia's very deliberate songwriting--she never goes for the easy lyric or obvious chorus, White never goes for the obvious beat or fill. Overall, it's a testament to the skills of these two as musicians that You Follow Me's collaborative conceit works as often as it does, that they manage to wring such variety and fullness of sound out of just drums, vocals, and acoustic guitar.

However, the trouble comes when the two don't work well together. At its worst, the album comes off like Nastasia singing a song on her own and then letting Jim White donate free jazz drumming to the project, overdubbing his drums in real time at a later date. Then she used his first attempts to support and accent each song but never let him get enough of a feel for her songs to nail them all 100%. 'Our Discussion' would've been a lovely meditation on cynicism from the viewpoint of a jaded romantic ("I don't believe in the wisdom of stone" is great stuff) except for White's incessant banging and rattling in the background, bringing to mind a modified version of your Mother's advice: if you can't play anything nice, don't play anything at all. Otherwise the moments where the two don't quite hook up are scattered here or there across the album; a slight hesitation or seemingly too early/too late accent or fill from White, usually.

I would really have to hear a version of this album without White's drumming to decide if it improves the music or not, but then that would be missing the point. You Follow Me is entirely about the collaboration between Nastasia and White, and this is the sort of interesting experiment of a release that must be judged by the metric of whether it succeeds more often than it fails.

And it does.

No comments: