Marissa Nadler: Songs III: Bird on the Water

That Marissa Nadler grew up in a small town in Massachusetts might begin to account for the rustic melancholy of her material. But biographical details alone hardly account for the timeless character of Songs III: Bird on the Water, the third album by this one-time Rhode Island School of Design student (the first, Ballads of Living and Dying, appeared in 2004, followed by The Saga of Mayflower May a year later). It's a haunting, eleven-song collection of classic folk ballads, incantations, and madrigals—fables of enchantment that seemingly emanate from some wondrous forest, and sung in a voice as fresh as cool country air. Often accompanied by a slight quiver or warble, her voice turns especially ethereal when multi-tracked in “Feathers” and “My Love and I”; elsewhere, the swooping arc in her delivery of “Oh, my lonely diamond heart” (“Diamond Heart”) and “She'll be crying” (“Leather Made Shoes”) captivates.

Though accompanied by a solid and supportive group of musicians (Helena Espval's cello provides keen counterpoint to the vocal during “Feathers,” and Greg Weeks' scalding ‘acid leads' boost “Bird on Your Grave”), Nadler, deftly accompanying herself with bluesy finger-picking, is clearly the focal point. Lyrically, her material rewards scrutiny, too: “So have you heard, I'm a singer now / With reliquary eyes, and a diadem frown,” she sings in “Diamond Heart,” and when was the last time you heard words like ‘reliquary' and ‘daidem' in a song, let alone in the same line? At times, Nadler's writing leans towards the fantastical (“Silvia, Silvia, Silvia / I met you in the belly of a whale”), and her dirge-like ballads exude a sadness appropriate to subjects like death (“Oh what a day to die”), failed romance, and regret of one sort or another (“Tomorrow I'm gonna leave a bird on your grave / And say a little prayer for you”). Fans of Mazzy Starr will be drawn to the bluesy lilt of “Mexican Summer” while Leonard Cohen devotees won't be put off by Nadler's respectable reading of “Famous Blue Raincoat.” And though the similarity seems strange, the chord sequence and main melody in “Rachel” vaguely recall Blondie's “Call Me” (play “Colour me your colour, baby” and then “The men would come to you and me” and you'll hear it). By album's end, you may be convinced that the term ‘sirenesque' should be applied to the album in general rather than a mere song or two. (The CD includes a download card that provides access to four unreleased bonus tracks including a cover of Neil Young's “Cortez the Killer”). 

October 2007