Nina Nastasia

Oh, what haunted places some songwriters wander. Smog, Cat Power, Sparklehorse -- these artists' songs sound as though they were carried over by a skip on the river Styx. You can add Nina Nastasia to that list. The Blackened Air is a frightening and gorgeous piece of work, notes from a shadow world.

Take "Oh My Stars," a laconic ballad about, well, who knows what exactly, but it's evil. As acoustic guitar clocks a slow but propulsive rhythm behind a mandolin that might as well be a hurdy-gurdy, the song is so pained; Nastasia's fey melodies are ruptured by birds' caws, a blast of muffled drum, glowering cello. This is what a bad dream sounds like -- the normal, twisted and rearranged into dangerous shapes. "Ugly Face" is another one -- a lullaby waltz straight into hell; fractured 3/4 time pulled down in an undertow of banjo.

Leave it to "engineer" Steve Albini to make the banjo scary. Albini's clearly more at home drawing out the madness in Nastasia's songs, as on the cacophonous climax of "Ocean," than tending to her lighter, altcountry fare. He likes her playing the witch, and that's only fair. The nightmare songs are the best thing about The Blackened Air, beckoning demons with the promise of a kiss.

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