Tag Archives: Closing Time

Stormy Weather/Nobody Knew Her – Nina Nastasia

Nina Nastasia’s Dogs is a record so simultaneously unassuming and grandiose that I can’t really describe it, except in terms that would make it (and me) sound silly. Of the couple thousand records I’ve been involved with, this is one of my favourites, and one that I’m proud to be associated with.

Steve Albini

 

A really great debut, the arrival of a talent already fully formed but with the potential to grow in any one of a number of directions, happens seldom, and with vanishing rarity by singer-songwriters. Bands, if the fragile chemistry is properly captured and they’re able to write a good tune or two, are more likely to do their best work early. Singer-songwriters take longer: few would argue that Tim Buckley, Bob Dylan, Song to a Seagull, Neil Young, Closing Time, London Conversation, or More Than a New Discovery were their authors’ best works, or even among them. You could make a case for Leonard Cohen’s and Randy Newman’s debuts (I would). Plastic Ono Band is Lennon’s best. Sweet Baby James is Taylor’s best, but it’s a low bar. Judee Sill is better than everything else ever, including her second and posthumous third. But the thesis holds, I think.

Nina Nastasia’s Dogs, though, is one of the great debut albums. I first heard it after becoming intrigued by two things that happened very close together: firstly, I read the above quote from Steve Albini, who engineered Dogs and all of Nastasia’s subsequent records. Second, I read an issue of Mojo in a hospital waiting room where Laura Marling nominated Nastasia’s work as a major influence. I’d heard nothing but good things about Marling but remained unconvinced by her songs or singing, and so was interested to hear an influence on her that maybe contained the things I did like about Marling in a more concentrated or developed form.

I certainly got that.

On first listen, Dogs sounded like a very good chamber-folk kind of record: sparse, vibey, atmospheric, beautifully arranged and recorded, and with really strong songs with surprising twists and little moments of dissonance. The more I listened, the better it sounded. Certain songs (All Your Life, Underground, A Love Song, the peerless Stormy Weather) bore their way into me.

I’m a recording geek, as regular readers will know, so Dogs is a pleasure from the first note to last. Among Albini’s stellar work, it’s a particularly great-sounding record. Listen to the strings on Stormy Weather and you’re in the room with the players, every nuance, every scrape, every creak, every change in bow direction audible. On their own, listening to these strings would be a compelling experience, but they are just the backing for Nastasia’s beguiling, winding melody and elliptical lyrics. Stormy Weather (not the jazz standard, by the way, if you don’t know the record) is a moment of perfection that makes the world stop.

Nobody Knew Her lets it all back in, noisily. I know nothing about Nastasia’s personal life, but in interviews she has alluded to a friend killed in an accident on Pacific Coast Highway, and Nobody Knew Her seems like it deals with these events, initially being sung as if by a schoolgirl (‘He won’t go out with me/I don’t care if I never see his face’), before with two hard strums and the line ‘Everyone’s talking about you’, the band slam in; and in the context of such a hushed album, they do slam.

It’s not a mawkish or maudlin song, and it doesn’t hit you over the head with its meaning – I listened to the song a dozen times, probably, before the significance of the chorus (‘Bradley, Bradley, I think you got away’) actually hit me, even as the second verse makes it plain we’re dealing with a car wreck – but the significance of having the band play hardest and loudest on a song about a friend’s early death (and his passenger – a girl nobody knew) is clear.

After Nastasia sings, ‘This desk says you were here’, there’s a pause of a few seconds before the band come back in. What could have been a very cheesy moment is instead the song’s most powerful; as the last line of the song sinks in and the chord decays, we hear the guitar amp hum and some very audible handling noise. If they’d have gone for silence before the band re-entered, that might have been cheesy. Nastasia and Albini allow even this consciously big moment retain its humanity and rough edges.

Guitarist Gerry Leonard then plays one of my favourite guitar solos, a messy, passion-filled 24 bars that function as a sort of boozy, rowdy wake after a sombre funeral. It’s a performance of proper catharsis, a real cleansing. It’s not typical of her later work – instead, it’s the most ‘indie rock’ her music’s ever been – but it’s the record’s key passage, the deepest moment in a record full of them. If you like either Stormy Weather or Nobody Knew Her, you need to hear the album in full. It’s a classic.

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Nina Nastasia

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Grapefruit Moon – Tom Waits

If you’re a Tom Waits fan who discovered the man’s work on any album from The Heart of Saturday Night onwards, chances are you don’t think much of Closing Time, Tom’s 1973 debut. Where’s the burlesque beat poetry? Where’s the grotesque carnival barker? Where’s the junkyard orchestra? Dammit, where’s the jazz?

The extent to which Closing Time represents the album Waits wanted to make remains debated. Producer Jerry Yester (alumnus of the New Christy Minstrels, the Modern Folk Quartet and the Lovin’ Spoonful, producer of Goodbye and Hello and Happy Sad) maintains that Waits got what he wanted and that it was not his job to impose a sound on the artist; Barney Hoskyns wrote in his Waits book that Yester’s vision of a fairly conventional acoustic singer-songwriter record was at odds with Waits’ desire for something jazzier and looser. The striking change from Closing Time to Saturday Night, achieved in just a year, suggests that Yester’s memories aren’t wholly accurate, but he wouldn’t be the first producer who’s been disingenuous about the extent to which he shaped a record.

Yet there are elements of Closing Time that are predictive of Waits’ later work. The muted trumpet on Midnight Lullaby, Little Trip to Heaven and Closing Time (the song); the chord structures (in the 1970s Tom Waits never met a ii-V-I he didn’t like); the general after-hours vibe; all of these point towards his early classic run of Saturday Night, Nighthawks at the Diner and Small Change.

As does one song above any other on Closing Time. No, it’s not Martha (I find Martha a little overpraised – the problem of a song that’s one side of a conversation is that the singer has to tell and can’t ever show, which only draws attention to the artifice of the device, as well as forcing lines into the singer’s mouth that would never be said in a real conversation). For me, the real classic Waits song on this record is Grapefruit Moon.

It’s the first song that really feels like a proper Tom Waits ballad, with the strings, the double bass and the sozzled sentimentality to prove it (and of course that ubiquitous ii-V-I turnaround). The tune feels like a Waits tune – ‘authentic’ is a problematic word to use in the context of Waits and his career so I won’t got that far. Let’s just say that he’s playing to his strengths with this song. He sounds more comfortable here than elsewhere.

The lyric’s a little too gauche and the vocal a little too unsure and unsteady to really qualify it as an out-and-out classic Waits ballad, but it’s reason enough that fans who may be put off Closing Time by the general Asylum-ness of Ol’ 55 and I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You should hear it. And it’d be a boring world if artists always got it right first time. We wouldn’t be able to go on a journey with them.

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Tom Waits, with cigarette and piano. Whiskey presumably somewhere nearby.