The core of Little Hells-- Marissa Nadler's elegiac and elegant fourth album-- is appropriately wedged in the middle: After moving alongside dual Wurlitzers and a theremin throughout opener "Heart Paper Lover", slowly waltzing above a country quartet on "Rosary", and augmenting a dark conversation between a man and his tired wife with industrial-iike programming and synths for "Mary Come Alive", Nadler settles back into her minimal roots for the next four tunes. During those 14 perfect minutes, it's just her voice and finger-picked acoustic guitar, augmented cautiously by piano, organ, and ripples of electronics. Surrounded by little else but her own melancholy, Nadler sums up her career's existential despair: "Ghosts and lovers/ They will haunt you for a while," she sings. And while they do, Little Hells suggests through 10 of Nadler's best songs yet, the sadness will either kill you or keep you going.
Nadler's earlier albums delivered this somberness almost exclusively through songs for acoustic guitar. On those records, her backing musicians seemed intent upon emphasizing the spectral, lost-love tendencies of her words, adding ominous cello shrieks, sinister electric leads, or raggedy lo-fi touches, which found her tagged from the start as a freak-folk artist. As late as her most recent album-- the exquisite breakthrough Songs III: Bird on the Water-- she did little to dispel that categorization, filling the record with archaic language and outsider accompaniment by New England experimentalists like multi-instrumentalist Greg Weeks and cellist Helena Espvall.
At last, Little Hells moves Nadler well beyond easy categories, thanks to a newfound clarity in her words, a compelling link between her songs, and production that sharpens her old strengths wheile brightly exposing new ones. Sonically, her reach is wider and more assured. On "Mary Come Alive", circular drumming, gauzed vocals, and synthetic harmonium suggest the unlikely union of Cocteau Twins and Swans. Meanwhile, "Loner" stacks organ sustains and submerges them beneath Nadler's strum and half-hummed coo. It's like Grouper coming back down the Hill or Valet emerging from the Acid, but more memorable and accessible than both.
But the LP's highlight is still the four-song core that recalls vintage Nadler-- now played, captured, edited, and arranged better than in the past. Her only solo turn here, "Brittle, Crushed & Torn", is crisp and concise, the presentation revealing the strength of the melodies in her bass-heavy picking and the wispy vocals above. "The Whole Is Wide" uses only that voice and Dave Scher's staccato piano march; the simplicity helps the album's most lyrically complex song translate off the page as Nadler intertwines the stories of two women, Sylvia and Laila, who waste their life away in the absence of a man. Nadler swaps first- and third-person pronouns and twists verb tenses, building tension by suggesting that they're both dead or at least headed that way. That time-and-person slipstream is what binds the 10 tracks of Little Hells so well. Nadler mixes images of individuals in various stages of love and loss, often pairing them with imagery of death, decay, and rebirth.
What Nadler's done on Little Hells suggests Antony and the Johnson's work on one of the year's other accomplishments, The Crying Light. Hegarty too alternated between thoughts of giving up, getting out, or fighting back. To do that, he eschewed the guests of I Am a Bird Now, choosing to sing with himself through fascinating harmonies, vocal lines intersecting with one another in unexpected patterns. He also expanded his sound in unexpected directions while refining what he'd always done well-- luxuriously layered arrangements-- through subtlety and tension. Nadler does all of that on Little Hells, and-- like Antony-- she's transcended freak folk as a result. ***4 Stars*** Grayson Currin, March 10, 2009
Though 27 year-old Marissa Nadler has a background in visual arts at the Rhode Island School of Design, she has since made a career as a musician. It's not surprising to find Nadler crafts music with melodies and lyrics steeped in rich imagery and beautiful textures. With a sound somewhere between the hazy melodies of Mazzy Star and the folk sensibilities of Vashti Bunyan, Nadler pieces together beautiful, dreamy folk music on her fourth solo album, Little Hells. With the help of a trio of talented musicians, Nadler's new release boasts an even richer sound.
Nadler's music may contain less 'freak' folk or experimental elements than much of the music evolving from the folk scene today, but it is no less relevant or intriguing. The synthesizer, organ, and lap steel layer nicely with Nadler's ethereal voice and give her music a sound that is somehow both melancholy and triumphant. Ranging from ghosts, angels, and dead flowers to running away to join the circus, the topics on Little Hells are just as eerily beautiful as the music. March 4, 2009 -
At first, "River of Dirt" feels like a Marissa Nadler tour video. But the shots taken from the backseat of a tour bus are deceptive: There's no band, just a speechless pack of travelers. They might be the circus performers mentioned in the song. But they might also be sad, stylish wanderers drifting toward some elusive destination-maybe they're going home. Who knows? Nadler's songs operate in these liminal zones: between last night's show and tomorrow's; between homes and loves lost and found; between waking life and our dreams. Her longtime video partner Joana Linda directed this video (and others, including the Mazzy Star-esque "Bird on your Grave") sets Nadler's disarming voice to a mise-en-scene befitting her latest collection of outcast ballads, Little Hells (out next week on Kemado).
Nadler shows new command with her fourth album and fittingly, this time around she reins in a full band. And with this newest release, there's a lot less Wiccan shtick, and a lot more brutally honest and wrenching songwriting about the haunted regions of the psyche. As with the entire album, "River of Dirt" leverages producer Chris Coady's ear for Eno-inspired sonic landscapes— he's worked with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, !!!, and Telepathe, among others—lending Nadler pitch-bending vocals an intensity that conveys comfort in the world she's created in her music. There's a heavy dose of the occult in the Marissa Nadler mystique, as though she's feeding off a great collective consciousness shared with Will Oldham, Joanna Newsom, and Stevie Nicks. Part of me wishes she'd use her siren's call to unite Sisters of the Moon in a woodland super-group of nymphs and urban wood-sprites.
Drowned In sound
Bleak Bostonian songstress Marissa Nadler has been a very impressive artist for a good few years now, ghosting out from the rafters at regular intervals to deliver installments of the eerie trilogy of albums that began with 2004’s Songs Of Living And Dying and wrapped up with 2007’s Songs III: Bird On The Water. She's nothing if not singular: her high, frightening trill, Edgar Allen Poe-ish storytelling and textured approach to what you might loosely call folk make for a formidable combination, her songs conjuring exquisite vistas of crumbling splendour and rotted Victoriana. Still, for all their choking beauty, those first three records were more atmospherics wholes than end to end killer songs, intensely evocative, but not exactly visceral.
Little Hells is different. Little Hells is like the bit in Ring when the spooky drowndey girl climbs out of the TV and you realise she's harder than you thought. As in, a lot harder. Where before Nadler's darkened daydreams, dissonant acoustic weaves and elegant turns of phrase drifted somewhat hazily, here they’re concentrated into fuel for the ten best songs she’s ever written, beautiful and merciless as diamond bullets.
"I believe you’re filled with s-s-s-sin," she hisses over 'Loner''s out of control carnival organs, "like me". The antique electronics are something new, but they’ve not idle experimentation; the song's malign whisper in the dark needs something more than the lush drifts of old to back it, and as with near enough every track on Little Hells, Nadler has upped her musical game accordingly. If the solo acoustic shows she played in support of Songs III showed those tracks could survive easily enough without their weirder sonic layers, here lyric, voice and music exist in chilly synthesis. Often guitar is discarded entirely: 'Mary Come Alive' is built on the disorientating sound of a delicate drum machine pattern being stalked by a much louder live figure, while in the centre of the chaos Nadler darkly mutters "I know we had a beautiful life, but things changed"; 'The Hole Is Wide' glides forward on two sad piano notes, the downward spiral of its lonely protagonist – left alone after "the man she loved best... died in a fiery crash" - matched by the ripples of distortion that slowly shred it to nothing over the course of the final minute.
Conversely, she's now not afraid to reign things in where once she’d have over-layered. The title track is a dreamy country strum over which she paints a portrait of a heartbroken recluse (the record's recurrent lyrical theme), guitar adorned by nothing more than a few keys, the hookline a simple, wistfully drawn out "she says"; 'Ghosts And Lovers' is just a quiet arpeggio cradling her searingly sad declaration "ghosts and lovers will haunt you for a while, from the stars and from the sheets and from the ground"; on the woozy 'Mistress' she sounds almost happy, accepting the ultimate outsider role as she lays down into a bendy sea of slide guitar, sighing "it’s strange to end up this way".
In the past it's been all too easy to revel in Marissa Nadler's astonishing voice, roll in the washes of reverb and off key chiming, suck in those eloquently morbid lyrics and be bewitched by the feel of the songs, only without necessarily being walloped by any one individually. Here she’s hacked away the art school whimsy, tossed out the crystals and burned the floaty headscarfs, focussing her talents into ten razor sharp songs, some subtle, some vicious. After years of floating in the ether, Marissa Nadler has finally taken corporeal form. It’s exciting - if a little terrifying - to see what she's going to do with it. 9/10
To attain memorability, artists often strive for a consistent tonal resonance to align with the occasionally overlooked aspect of cohesion. Whether one hears a punk group achieve success through energetically volatile three-chord progressions or listens to an electronic artist successfully emulate certain emotions or experiences through a fusion of samples and original melodies, there is an undeniable responsibility placed upon the atmosphere found on a given album. “Soundscape” has been a word thrown around to describe these audible atmospherics, specifically in electronic music. But despite what anyone chooses to call it, there is no method in which to teach an aspiring musician how to master audible atmospherics. This is especially the case as recent years have shown, with an ample array of technological innovations in music allowing for more artistic flexibility (for better or for worse) in an area of songwriting that is one of the most accurate factors in determining natural ability. Along with the increase in production-based technology, the expectations of listeners are rising as the degrees of innovation within “soundscapes” appear to becoming just as relevant as the melodic content itself. Though many exist who still prefer the lo-fi side of things, there is a broad audience that heavily values the art of atmospheric dependability. And for this, very few artists reign supreme for a reason that relates to both natural ability and technological comprehension.
Unanimous association with tranquility can be a turn-off for some, as they may perceive such a style to lack the vigor necessary to result in something memorable. But as Marissa Nadler has proven with her past three albums, haunting serenity can be one of the most powerful forces at work. This appears to be especially the case in folk music, where minimal instrumentation is often prevalent and effective lyrical imagery is vital toward success. On her fourth and finest album, Little Hells, Nadler’s arrangements are not bare by any stretch of the imagination with tinges of throwback synthesizers, distorted bass, and chilling organs. However, they do attain a quality that never allows her works to be overwhelming or stylistically desperate. In addition to her majestic songwriting, it can be traced to one thing: Nadler’s uniquely empowering voice. She is able to instill beauty, temptation, and pensive melancholy through a voice that sits somewhere between that of an airy ghost and an undeniably beseeching angel. In other words, it sounds like it is not quite from this earth. These aspects may sound great to new listeners (as they are accurate), but longtime fans of Nadler since her 2004 debut, Ballads of Living and Dying, are already familiar with it all by now. In fact, the only thing they are asking themselves by now is what separates Little Hells from her previous three albums.
In a rapid succession of sorts, there are few that will argue against the belief that Nadler’s releases seem to be improving with each sequential release. What makes Little Hells so brilliant is surprisingly not her approach, which is the similarly ethereal style she mastered on her third album, Songs III: Bird on the Water, but the songwriting itself. Fans of her previous releases will not notice any major stylistic changes apart from a more prevalent usage of synthesizers and several more instrumentally involved tracks, but even these are subtle enough to blend into the style of half-beautiful, half-haunting elegance that captured so many fans in the first place. Instead, it is the songwriting that makes the best use of her style. The enthralling “Rosary” is a track that could have easily fit on her previous album with its delicate acoustical progression and gradually implemented backing vocal harmonies. And like the most prevalent highlights on Songs III: Bird on the Water, the most beautiful moments are usually the ones that appear after several listens. “Rosary”, in particular, involves what seems to be a very effective slide guitar soaked in reverb under a vocal melody that complements the aforementioned beautifully. While it is one of the album’s more subdued and less demanding tracks along with other efforts like “Ghosts and Lovers” and “Brittle Crushed and Torn”, it provides as one of the greatest examples of Nadler’s subtle elegancies.
When moving on to the album’s more instrumentally involved tracks, one must keep in mind that the beauty of Nadler’s music is not decided by the number of instruments involved or how technically demanding the song is. Basically, since Nadler’s vocals often serve as a separate entity of their own with unpredictably effective melodies, there is no use in saying that a boastfully progressive track like the outstanding “Mary Comes Alive” is more intricate than something like “Rosary” or “Ghosts and Lovers”. Though the tracks on Little Hells boast varying structural advantages and melodic techniques, they all appear on a level playing ground that exemplifies Nadler’s cohesive tonal, melodic, and atmospheric consistency more than anything else. “Mary Comes Alive” is distantly reminiscent of classic Portishead with a ghostly female voice crooning over a bustlingly repetitive guitar progression, thick bass drums, and a synth line that first appears sporadically before it emerges as a central point of the song. Here, Nadler sounds like she is on the verge of tears, which is effectively appropriate considering the tone of her lyrical delivery. After a burst of synths, she proclaims, “I know we had a beautiful life, but things changed.” The entire track speaks to both emotional death and rebirth, a theme that Nadler has explored successfully before on her past three albums.
“Loner”, with its eerie organ and gentle acoustical strum, is one of the efforts on Little Hells that heavily benefits from Nadler’s natural ability to infuse ingenious atmospherics with a haunting cohesion of lyrical and melodic arrangements. “Loner” is indeed one of the most structurally repetitive tracks on the album, but it is also an aspect that Nadler clearly recognized as she was constructing the song. This song is simply an example of the pure atmospheric beauty that Nadler is able to concoct. The droning effect of an acoustic guitar resonates similarly throughout the entire track, but slight variations in the gothic-esque organs and synth pads (which resemble the sound of blowing wind) are what carries this song – along with the obvious (Nadler’s voice) – to great heights. And even on more expansive tracks like “Mistress” and “River of Dirt”, where her first accompanying “full band” shows off their powerful effect – Nadler’s beautiful subtleties resonate very powerfully. Though Little Hells is an effort that continues utilizing the aspects that made Nadler’s previous releases so memorable, both solid songwriting and the addition of a backing band makes Nadler’s fourth album a release of pure beauty that surpasses the material of all of her previous releases. 8.5/10
On Little Hells Nadler builds upon the medieval soundscapes of her previous albums. What we get that's different from her is a greater emotional depth and reach. The music, lyrics, and the images they conger envelop the listener and take them further into Nadler's personal world than ever before.Nadler's songs are pretty yet stark dreamlands. Tracks such as "Loner" swirl around you, creating an ethereal fog through which you can see, and almost touch, the places and people she sings about.The haunting vocals are the main attraction on Little Hells. However, Chris Coady's deft production touch, and the wrenching musical arrangements (like the music box sound on "Heart Paper Lover") provide an exquisite frame for Nadler's beautifully touching voice.While Little Hells does hold it's Gothic minstrel continuity well, there are some intriguing musical elements included. "Mary Comes Alive" features a hollow electronic backing effect, while the title track boasts a compelling medieval twang. The album concludes on the strangely uplifting "Mistress".Little Hells proves that Marissa Nadler has come a long way to filling the void for those of us who lament the absence of Hope Sandoval on the musical landscape. ***4 Stars***
By the time she utters the final words to "Heartpaper Lover," you're already in love. And you've only known her for a little over four minutes. On her fourth full-length, Little Hells, Boston-based Marissa Nadler mesmerizes and bewitches the listener like few today can. The 10-track album is intoxicating and haunting, familiar yet otherworldly. And fans of Eisley, Maria Taylor, or Holly Conlan should take note-Little Hells could quite possibly be their next fix.
After the aforementioned "Heartpaper Lover" has ended, it's hard to imagine that someone could have crafted an entire album full of tracks as hypnotic as that first one is. But Miss Nadler did. And as the album plays on, each track has its own effect on the listener, each one forbidding you to hit the "next" button. And while it may be hard to pick any standouts, there are those that are perhaps slightly more intriguing than others.
Take the follow-up to "Heartpaper" for example. "Rosary" sees Marissa whispering her way through a heartbreaking tune, all the while being backed up by a group of angelic voices doing the same thing. If you didn't fall completely in love after the first track, this one will finish you off without a doubt. Later on into the album, another standout, "River of Dirt," starts playing. This one is a slightly more folk-y sounding track that allows Marissa to sing more than whisper, but the end result is still the same.
And as the final seconds of "Mistress" - the album's closer-play through the speakers, your finger is already hovering over the "next" button, set to play the entire album over again from the start. And when you do, you fall in love with new aspects, new parts you hadn't heard the first time through. I suppose that's how most of the truly great albums are. And Little Hells is definitely that. 9/10
On her fourth full-length album, Marissa Nadler takes a conscious step away from the folk purity of her earlier work, filling out her sound with full band arrangements featuring drums, bass guitar, and keyboards. The gamble pays off handsomely, and the indie-folk pinup girl and mistress of the murder ballad delivers one of her finest albums yet.
Marissa Nadler's appeal is so simple that it's hard to explain. Though certainly her fingerpicking style is lovely, there are doubtless other artists who could dwarf her abilities. Her voice is evocative but often drenched in reverb, which is not at all an uncommon strategy for artists looking to add some haunt and atmosphere to their work. Her songs are often simplistic, and across her four albums there are certainly moments of déja vu for a careful listener; similar melodic progressions get trotted out repeatedly, and the lyrical imagery draws from such a recognizably discrete set of themes that, at this point, it would probably be possible to make a Marissa Nadler magnetic poetry lyric set for refrigerator doors everywhere. What makes Marissa Nadler's music irresistible is not reducible to any of its component parts. It's something else, something intangible, something approaching what Roland Barthes called "the grain of the voice," but somehow even less definable. Either you "get it" or you don't, and luckily, critics and listeners everywhere seem to be "getting" Marissa Nadler more with each successive release. Given this trajectory, Little Hells may well be Nadler's breakthrough album.
It's her breakthrough album because she sticks to what she knows; simple, melancholic fingerpicked folk ballads that take advantage of her sonorous, spine-tingling vocals, narrating tales of damsels in distress or lovers absent or dead. What has changed are the arrangements; many of these tracks feature a full band backing up the singer-songwriter, a band drawn from the ranks of groups like Blonde Redhead, Beachwood Sparks, and Vetiver. Sure, Nadler has had accompaniment in the past, notably some subtle synths here and there on her debut, and the electric third-eye soloing of Greg Weeks on her last album Songs III: Bird On the Water, but she has never tried for a traditional rock sound, which is her big gamble on Little Hells. Not that you would know it from the first track "Heartpaper Lover," which uses a limited sound palette with no rhythm section, just Marissa's multitracked vocals and guitar, with atmospheric air raid synths forming a creepy backdrop. But on the album's second track, "Rosary," everything changes. Not only does the track feature drums and bass, but also a noticeably jauntier and more confident performance from Nadler herself.
The changes get even more intense with tracks like "Mary Comes Alive," which add synths to the already maximalist arrangement, and ends up sounding like a lost Mazzy Star B-side. This is not to say that Marissa has abandoned her folk origins, and many tracks here retain a sense of that witchy Brit-folk vibe that made an album like The Saga of Mayflower May so appealing. More notable than the continuities are the disruptions, however, a track such as "Mistress," which incredibly, is nothing less than full-bore countrified rock, Nadler singing from the point of view of a joyful adulteress: "Goodbye misery/linens on the line...Come in now, you know I won't desert you/It's been four years waiting for the day/That would you would leave your girl and take me/Somewhere away." The production on Marissa's voice is top-notch throughout the album, transforming the sometimes miasmic muddle of past albums into vocals that are at once nebulous and piercing, like a whisp of smoke that spontaneously forms into distinct but ephemeral shapes before melting back into undifferentiated haze.
Little Hells is a fantastic album that completely transcends any tenuous association that Marissa Nadler might once have had with the annoying, and now dead, indie "freak-folk" scene. There are no willful eccentricities on display here; just a great singer-songwriter with incredible poise, seemingly in full control of her aesthetic, spinning ten haunting narratives in musical miniature.
Wears the Trousers
Marissa Nadler’s Little Hells is nothing less than aptly named. It’s a slice of intricately stringed American Gothic that, if at times a little unrelenting, creates a distinctive fictional universe of which most seasoned authors would be justly proud…only Nadler has pointed out that many of the characters are based on real-life friends and acquaintances. So, for the record, we have in Nadler a 27-year-old, self-taught guitarist and singer, on her fourth critically acclaimed album, who has friends that could keep HBO in dramatic television series for years to come.
No need to be jealous, though. Nadler isn’t the kind to strut. Even though relatively young, she opens Little Hells with the quiet, measured confidence of a seasoned pro. Opener ‘Heart Paper Lover’ reinforces her reputation at once. It is spooky and beautiful, Nadler’s voice as atmospheric as ever. She has the market cornered when it comes to being both simultaneously icily detached from and heartbreakingly involved in her material. It’s a quality that makes her absolutely unique in the vocal stakes, perhaps even incomparable.
‘Rosary’ follows, and warms through the icy chill left by its predecessor. Here, Nadler’s ability to sketch out characters with scant room for detail comes to the fore. It is, at times, a little like slipping into a paragraph from Woolf’s The Waves, offering up a stream of consciousness that traverses both the mundane and the divine. Next up is ‘Mary Come Alive’ which, in many respects, is the most exciting track on the album, kicking off as it does with an ’80s drumbeat before using similarly spiky keyboards as those which adorned Bat For Lashes’s ‘What’s A Girl To Do’. It’s a step away from the atmospheric, folky territory that Nadler inhabits, and the risk pays off in bucketloads.
It’s a sound that she revisits again in ‘The Whole Is Wide’, which consists solely of Nadler’s voice ‘reverbed’, the piano in Cat Power mode, and a clever, beautiful touch in which the male backing vocal falls away when she launches into the lyrics, “Oh, what am I to do / without a man to see me through?” Often the more experimental tracks are swiftly followed up by retreats into more traditional territory (title track ‘Little Hells’, for instance, comes after ‘Mary Come Alive’ and is a sweet, sorrowful country ditty with strummed guitar), but this shouldn’t matter too much: Nadler does what she does so very well. Even on familiar territory, like the dreamy, shoegazey closer ‘Mistress’, she’s in sublime, beautiful form.
‘Mary Come Alive’, though, really gives you a glance into an album that Nadler could and most definitely should make in the future, where she gives into her more experimental side and recycles some truly artificial sounds into a twisted masterpiece. With Little Hells being her fourth album in just about as many years, Nadler is prolific enough to ensure that there’s a good chance that this album could come soon. ***4 Stars***
The beautiful Little Hells of Marissa Nadler
“I made up a song called Marriage,” Anne Sexton writes in “The Interrogation of the Man with Many Hearts.” “For years I have tied this knot in my dreams. I have walked through a door in my dreams,” she continues, her incantations building an impossible realm of perfect love. It is from this landscape that Marissa Nadler writes, and Little Hells (Kemado Records) is Nadler’s 10 postcards, each one an image of beauty and a message of haunted sorrow.
“I think of it as a collection of really hard moments in life,” Nadler says. “The protagonist is always this lonely female character,” she elaborates, referring to the character as “an Ophelia type.” Ophelia — with her columbines and pansies — is an apt comparison, given the prevalence of flower imagery in Little Hells. “When a guy gives a woman flowers, it’s kind of this cheesy symbol of romance, and so for [flowers] to trace their path from life to death was one of the symbols I had in mind for this heartbroken woman that starts off the record. I think of this lonely old crone counting the loves she’s lost.”
“Ghosts and lovers, they will haunt you / for a while / from the stars / and from the sheets / and grow from the ground,” Nadler mourns in “Ghosts & Lovers” over her trademark dusty guitar. Little Hells retains Nadler’s unmistakable voice and bittersweet lyricism as well, but she has also begun adding new elements. “Mary Come Alive” even features an electronic beat, something that shocked many of her fans.
Ultimately, Nadler says, they are sympathetic to her situation. Four albums into her career and a “folk” label affixed to her music makes the 20-year-old feel pigeonholed before she has even fully spread her wings. “I don’t know where [the music] is going to go. It just really depends on the inspiration that strikes me. I don’t have a plan to start making rap records or heavy-metal records. Well … I can guarantee I probably won’t make rap records.” Otherwise, it seems all options are open for Nadler, who thrives on possibility and enjoys surprising her listeners.
For the time being, Nadler seems to be reveling in the contrast between up-tempo numbers like “Mary Come Alive” and the rollicking “River of Dirt” and the despair of the songs’ lyrics. The cheerful music paired with the sheer beauty of Nadler’s vocals confuses some listeners. “This Japanese interviewer asked me ‘why is it called Little Hells? It should be Little Heavens,’” she recalls.
Little hells, she explains, is a phrase that she remembers first emerging in the title track. It struck her as a good album title, so she “Googled ‘little hells’ to see if anybody else had a record named that, and the only thing that popped up was this geological phenomenon in Central and South America where geysers of boiling water cause earthquakes and they’re called ‘little hells.’ It’s an interesting parallel that a song was born out of this boiling rage of emotion.”
The emotion on Little Hells ranges from loss to sorrow, a narrow terrain, but one that Nadler is comfortable traversing. As a self-taught guitarist who tours independently and writes her own songs, Nadler feels she has earned the right to admit her own loneliness. “I’m unabashedly feminine in my music, dress, and vocal stylings,” she says. “And I don’t think that’s a backwards-leaning thing. It’s OK to admit that you are longing for something more. It’s kind of this post-feminist thing, where you’re able to wear lipstick and still play guitar very well.”
She pauses before adding, “It’s possible to admit in your songs that you want a man without erasing the past 40 years of the women’s rights movement.” Nadler has a predilection for this beautiful contrast in her lyrics, which can simultaneously celebrate Patti Smith’s un-canonical femininity at the same time as have a chorus that pleads “What will I do / without a man to see me through?” as on the track “The Whole is Wide.”
“I definitely feel like I have this emptiness that hasn’t been filled yet,” Nadler says. She attributes this emptiness, in part, to growing up in a culturally bland suburb of Boston that made her long for more mysterious environments. “I’ve had a whole lifetime of moments that led me to become this person that romanticizes melancholy and escapism. I developed a very active imagination for the kind of humdrum monotony of everyday life. And then my many, many failed relationships with men over the past decade have formed this fixation on loneliness.”
No wonder the flowers in Little Hells are so frequently dead or thriving only in memory. In fact, Little Hells has much in common with the flowers Ophelia delivers: rosemary for remembrance, rue for regret, pansies for thought, and the violets too withered to be in her bouquet. Fortunately, Nadler’s hallucinations are merely memories of lovers past, and her hells are not only little but beautiful as well. By Erin Lyndal Martin. March 4th, 2009
Some artists are just too hard to pin down. Bunching Marissa Nadler in with the ill-defined “freak folk” scene, or likening her fragile acoustics to some ’60s psychedelic throwback, seems all too easy. Even now with her fourth album, Little Hells, Nadler seems to elude any clear tag. Whether it’s her haunting voice and elegiac balladry, or a musical sense that evokes centuries-old folk fables, is difficult to say.
Whatever alien bone Nadler may have been given to elicit such intangible responses, it’s clear that Little Hells only makes them all the more poignant. Nadler’s resonant vocals and muted production lend her sound a dreary aura that, not unlike Beach House, revels in subtleties that reveal themselves only after incessant listens. Couched in syncopated finger-pickings fleshed out with pale synths, Little Hells is at once authentically American and entirely relevant, yet drenched in an eerie mysticism with each passing note. To offer a crude analogy, it’s as if Vashti Bunyan became a traveling bard and called on a young Leonard Cohen to tell the tale. Simply put, Marissa Nadler both broadens the scope of indie folk and taps unflinchingly into its timeworn heart.
There remains in some circles an oft-cited misconception that happy people don’t often make good art. Birthed with reference to the tumultuous psyches of figures like Van Gogh, the hypothesis isn’t without its arguments (had Kafka been a carefree guy, it’s safe to say his writing might’ve been a tad less compelling), but it seems a tad presumptuous to go too far in correlating artistic output with psychological wellbeing. So what of Marissa Nadler, contemporary folkstress? Nadler’s always been a songwriter and performer of emotional heft, but 2007’s Songs III: Bird on the Water was packed with a markedly haunting pathos, musing on death, sadness and mourning with an elegiac beauty. On Little Hells, Nadler’s latest effort, the tone isn’t always so somber, but the disc is hardly sunnier than its predecessor. By all accounts, Nadler’s not a gloomy person, she’s simply someone adept at getting in touch with life’s darker side, and an artist skillful enough to make exceedingly palpable the emotion with which she imbues her work.
Little Hells may not deviate much tonally from Songs III, but the execution and arrangement of Nadler’s compositions is where this disc makes a departure. "Rosary" and "Mistress" feature steady percussion amidst the ether, and Nadler’s folk is garnished with a ghostly country vibe on more than one occasion. By and large, these are welcome additions to Nadler’s sound; though she’s an adroit guitar player, the augmentation of Nadler’s acoustic with a broader timbral palette is often a boon to her music’s striking atmosphere.
Nadler has used synthesizers in the past for understated, if effective, accompaniment, a more evident manifestation of the spectral flavor her music often contains. Little Hells features more of the same, but the way she employs the instrument couldn’t be more different. "Mary Comes Alive" is the album’s real surprise, opening with a drum machine rhythm straight out of 1985, and developing into a synthesizer-heavy, full-band performance far more reminiscent of a band like Echo and the Bunnymen than the folk tradition to which Nadler is often linked. It’s a gutsy move, a slice of stylistic dissonance. The disc’s title track eases back into more familiar territory, and while "Mary Comes Alive" may not be one of the album’s better tracks, it’s one of the more memorable.
Like those of the Greek sirens, Nadler’s sonorous voice often leads its admirer to dark places. Little Hells brings little risk of shipwreck, but her rich vocals can be bewitching nonetheless, and no matter the instrumental additions or stylistic explorations this new album might bring, at its center is Nadler and her acoustic guitar, an enticing pairing, to be sure. Little Hells, for all its melancholy, gives Nadler’s fans another reason to celebrate; any continuation of the momentum birthed with Songs III is a happy thing, indeed.
San Fransisco Bay Guardian
Who is the shy girl casting her eyes downward on the cover of Little Hells (Kemado)? Here in Hell, Marissa Nadler could be a damsel who has tumbled from a frayed tapestry in search of her unicorn, a crystal doll who has escaped from her vitrine, or a tubercular maid who has slipped out of her Victorian deathbed photograph to traipse this earthly plane. She's the dark, downbeat cousin of the enormous-eyed cameo cutie gracing The Saga of Mayflower May (Eclipse, 2005), the sunlit warbler singing in the lawn at the first Arthur Fest, and the whimsical Rhode Island School of Design-educated artist I spoke to around the time of Songs III: Bird on the Water (Kemado, 2007).
With her fourth full-length, Nadler enters a new, more synthetic, and increasingly richer musical realm than that on her previous recordings — one outfitted with its own exquisite troubles and terrors. The almost imperceptibly swooping faux strings that strafe "Heart Paper Lover" sound like tiny planes dive-bombing a cruel sweetheart. The goth muses slumbering within Nadler's out-folk also come to light, blinking: one imagines Mary Shelley waking to find herself in Frankenstein's grave-dirt-encrusted shoes on the harpsichord-strewn, almost Sisters of Mercy-like "Mary Comes Alive." Still, Nadler's voice has never sounded so fine — catching itself on miniscule beads of longing on "Rosary" and fading, delicately detuned, like a dying darling on "Ghosts and Lovers."
The whys and wherefores of one Marissa Nadler will be forever clothed in mist, and a listen to her catalog of gothically ghostly tales — echoing across the moors — does not give a clue. The Boston singer-guitarist’s new Little Hells disc on Kemado is her most bloodcurdlingly cogent statement yet, a phantastic journey into a seemingly lonely psyche that gazes out the attic window of a decrepit old house and ponders the cycles of life, this “River of Dirt” that has always been and will always be. You’ll want this music to never end, almost perversely, as Nadler echo-croons so ethereally over artfully plucked acoustic guitar, the shapes and colors of her melancholy muse shifting so subtlely as to suggest, best severe and complex emotions that we’ve possibly never recognized in this or previous lives. Old-world obsessivists Joanna Newsom or Faun Fables might have tapped into similar musical roots (where Joni Mitchell reigns supreme), though you’d be forgiven for projecting a degree of inheritance from the medieval sounds filtered through the early-’70s English folk crew, such as Pentangle or the Fairports (which Nadler claims to have only recently discovered). This is that shiveringly faraway music that lingers damply, but you’ll be grateful for its persistence in the end ... the end ... the end. (John Payne)
• Interview with Italy's popular webzine Ondarock
• Feature in the Boston Globe
• Writeup in Australia's Rave Magazine
• Marissa's pages on the Gerald Van Waes' influential psych site
• Music Emissions review of The saga of Mayflower May
*****- Gaurdian Glasgow, live review
Songs III was a PITCHFORK RECOMMENDED release.
"...A striking, silken creature with a siren's voice and mystic blood culled from some ancient well. She exudes a dark mystery"- Splendid
"The Saga of Mayflower May is haunting and beautiful (and hauntingly beautiful). Nadler's songs wisp in with the breeze like near forgotten memories of long lost loves, her voice portraying confidence and lending her tales ofwoe a soothing sense of acceptance."-fakejazz.com
In 2005 Marissa Nadler released a gorgeous and gothic psych-folk album on Eclipse Records. Nadler's voice, the most important and strongest sonic facet to her music, is majestic like a cosmic ghost or a heavenly angel; both haunt you in wondrous ways and fill the room with her power and beauty. Titled "The Saga of Mayflower May," Nadler uses mythical characters in her lyrics (many based in reality) to explore the outer edges of folklore and folk music. Although very classical in style, Nadler has carved out a distinct sound with drone-like guitar picking, strings and her singular vocal styling.
Ballads of Living and Dying
Over the past couple of centuries, the definition of "ballad" has been stretched to include virtually any slow-tempo sentimental song, even on those occasions when it merely means Tommy Lee is coming out from behind his kit to play the piano. But once upon a time the word indicated a more specific, codified form of verse. In the days before widespread literacy, a ballad was a dramatic (frequently tragic) story-poem that functioned as something of an oral newspaper, constructed simply with recurring rhymes so that it could be easily remembered and repeated. And on her captivating debut album, Ballads of Living and Dying, Marissa Nadler does her small part to retrn ballary to its vivid and illustrious past.
On the surface this might not sound like a compelling proposition, but fortunately Nadler has the sort of voice that you'd follow straight to Hades. Her luxurious, resonant soprano is immediately transfixing, and throughout these songs it envelops the listener like a dense fog rolling in off the moors. Nadler's vocals are highly reminiscent of Hope Sandoval's-- with perhaps the faintest glimmer of the languid phrasing of cabaret chanteuse Marlene Dietrich-- and her unadorned arrangements recall the rain-weary solitude of early Leonard Cohen met with Mazzy Star or Opal at their most hazily narcotic.
Nadler is clearly savvy enough in her material to know that a true collection of ballads must include a body count, and the most obviously successful auld school example here is her arrangement of Edgar Allen Poe's poem "Annabelle Lee". As you might recall from junior high English, this is a classic tale of ill-starred love with a stretched-by-your-grave finale that fits the ballad form to perfection, and Nadler's melodic rendition here is flawless. And poor Annabelle Lee is not this album's only casualty; there's also "Virginia", which respectfully chronicles the death of Virginia Woolf, as well as dreamier, more ambiguous songs like "Undertaker" and "Box of Cedar" which certainly contain whispers of foreboding for their subjects.
Each song on the album comes lightly-dressed, usually borne along by little more than Nadler's voice, her fingerpicked guitars, and ornamental flourishes from the occasional accordion, autoharp, or blurry wisp of feedback. On "Hay Tantos Muertos", one the album's loveliest tracks, Nadler branches out from the strict balladic format, quoting lines from Pablo Neruda's haunting "No Hay Olvido" ("There Is No Forgetting") in a manner resembling a traditional Portuguese fado, and on "Days of Rum" she busts out a banjo and takes an enchanting turn at a Dock Boggs-style country blues.
It's worth noting that, aside from the Poe and Neruda quotes, all of these songs are original compositions rather than the traditional works they appear. Throughout the album Nadler writes and performs with a weathered maturity that belies her young age. In fact, several tracks ("Mayflower May", "Days of Rum", "Fifty-Five Falls") seem to be narrated from the perspective of older women looking back upon the adventures and mistakes of their youth. Also an accomplished visual artist, Nadler's lyrics showcase a perceptive eye and a genuine empathy for her creations; and when coupled with that intoxicating voice the resulting landscape is one you may want to get lost in for a century or two. 8.0 - Matthew Murphy, pitchforkmedia.com
"Nadler first came to notice as one of the wildcards on last year's Tom Rapp tribute put together by Secret Eye, and as her inlcusion there makes clear, she favours dark folk ballads that reach far into the blackest areas of space. Her debut album Ballads of Living and Dying is a beauty...The LP's back cover fearures some cryptic artwork that looks like a nod towards Current 93's epochal Swastikas for Noddy album, and references to other decadent fantasists and folkloric topes dot the record, culminating in her setting of Edgar Allen Poe's Annagelle Lee for acoustic and electric guitar. Buit it's her own compositions, with titles like "Stallions" and "Box of Cedar", that leave the heaviest afterimages in the air; beautiful hybrids of dark-hearted Bert Jansch-style folk, and drugged, wieghtless psych." David Keenan, the Wire, UK
...Marissa Nadler's music betrays a scholarly appreciation of the most resonant of folk traditions, the death ballad. Ballads of Living and Dying revels in the arcane and gothic, filled as it is with allusions to Poe and songs called ' The Undertaker ' and ' Box of Cedar '. A tad hokey on paper perhaps, but these 10 finely crafted songs are gorgeous in practice. Nadler's tone of faraway melancholy is utterly convincing and, accompanied largely by her own perfumed strums, could be being broadcast from a candlelit nook in Topanga Canyon circa 1971. A benchmark of sorts, for the new psyche folk underground.' ***4 Stars***
The London Gaurdian
New York folk player Marissa Nadler lives in our times, but she recalls some lost siren of the mystic Sixties or a heroine of the high Romantic period. Her willowy songs are concerned with death and doomed love and she goes as far as to quote Edgar Allan Poe (on 'Annabelle Lee') and Pablo Neruda (on 'Hay Tantos Muertos'). These ballads are uncommonly lovely - unshowy, but hard to get out of your head. Nadler's voice, as delicate as smoke, swirls distantly over her picking and strumming. She uses guitars, banjos and ukuleles, but the atmosphere here is less hokey than haunted, as though the songs were oscillating, suspended, between this world and the next. -Kitty Empire, the London Gaurdian
I love it when music evokes a mood, and with Marissa Nadler's debut the mood is very chilling and soothing. Nadler's voice plus her simple, bare-to-the-bone music makes this a confident record. In some strange way it actually manages to project her out of the record and into the living room.Maybe I am being too personal, but this is a personal record. Saying that, unlike other female singer-songwriters she isn't claustrophobic with her emotions. Nadler is singing to you and you are her audience. It is a bit melancholic but it suits the mood so well. Plus the album flows so freely you won't even know that time has passed. Although I did say the music is sparse there are little touches which make it endearing. An accordian in Fifty-Five Falls gives the track an odd sea shanty air. The double-tracking (or back up) voice in Box of Cedar strengthens the song immensely. And so on.When I listen to this I think of Hope Sandoval or Vashti Bunyan. But Nadler has her own distinctive style and personally I can't wait to hear more offerings from this bright talent. -by way of alternativemalta.com
Aquarius Records of San Fransisco
We've been loving this record for a while now and are only finally now getting around to reviewing it just in time for its release on cd (it was only on lp there for a while). This is a dark and langorous trip through a sonic world of bleak skies, neverending sorrow, lost love, death and dying and all sorts of somber miserablism. The music itself is lush and rich, a warm rainy soundscape of muted finger picked guitars, augmented by occasional banjo, ukele, and autoharp, all lashed together into a modern melding of classic Appalachia, psych folk and classic songcraft. But it's Nadler's voice that is the most mesmerising part of Ballads Of The Dying, rich, velvety and throaty, completely captivating, and surprisingly reminiscent of Neko Case, but instead of the country wildcat Case, here's she's a rainsoaked and bedraggled innocent, seemingly beaten down but emanating an inner strength, a hidden power, that comes through in her powerful voice. This is one of those records that seems pleasant enough on first listen, but as you dig deeper, the songs and stories unfold and you quickly find your self living and loving and crying and dying right along with Nadler and the characters she has populated her musical world with.
Ethereal-voiced folk singer/songwriter Marissa Nadler has created a little beauty of an album that should do a better than average job of ensuring that she join the ranks of other new folkies like Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and the like. While she's definitely a modern girl (she loves the reverb), there's also a tiny bit of an old-school feeling to her lyrics that gives her music a little bit more weight than a lot of the genres gauzy cloud-surfing tunes. Nadler's more accessible than eccentric, but that doesn't mean she won't be getting her fair share of front page time on lots of music blogs.
Album opener "Diamond Heart" has Nadler working the pretty tones in her voice without sounding like she should be busking the Haight with a guitar a few decades ago. There's an overall warmth to the song that speaks to the influence of modern songbirds like Norah Jones and Alicia Keys. "Mexican Summer" does add a few psychedlic flourishes here and there, but it's more of a nod to the past than a full on trip back in time.
One of Marissa Nadler's greatest strengths is her songwriting. She creates extremely vivid songs that can make the simplest of phrases overflow with life and emotion. "Dying Breed" is one of the best examples. When Nadler sings "Red is the color of memories", images and stories come to mind even though she offers no more than a suggestion of the story behind her lyrics. That kind of potent imagery mated with her sense of melody makes a for a powerful one two punch of a song. 8/10
A few of Nadler's songs like "Bird on Your Grave" end up being precious when they obviously want to be deep, but it's a small price to pay for what is overall, a very strong album.
Winter is heading our way but upon hearing Marissa Nadler's debut 'Ballads Of Living And Dying' LP we're positive cold hands won't be an issue this year. Her songs are dipped in a melancholic sauce of ethereal elements. Her songwriting mostly deals with tragic deaths - forbidden fates and stormy suicides where nostalgia and melodrama dance hand in hand around the trees. Beautifull fingerpicking acoustic guitar that blend perfectly with her smoky soprano voice. An ideal companion for long somber days. alone in the dark dreaming about the next sunrise. Eclipse made this haunting record available in a limited edition of only 500 copies. the light shines bright at the top of the folk hill!
It has been an effulgent year in the musical catacombs, and one gem shines brighter than most: 23 year old singer/songwriter and painter Marissa Nadler. Born somewhere between the Renaissance and the turn of the century, she possesses the kind of seductive, velvety soprano that instantly burrows its way into the heart and soul. Doused in a wash of reverb, and backed with acoustic guitar, banjo, organ and more, the voice relays tales of fading beauty queens and sad souls lost in the shadows of introspection in a style that's informed of old Americana and older English, but run through a post psychedelic prism.
"Ballads of Living and Dying" (Eclipse), an acoustic dream meeting between early Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, is among the most haunting folk debuts of 2004. Though it's mostly her own material, two tracks feature the words of Pablo Neruda and Edgar Allen Poe sung by Nadler over her music. Hearing her interpretation of Poe's "Annabelle Lee" is much like hearing some faded childhood memory conveyed with such an impressionistic touch, it may have just been a dream all along.
And here that precisely, these days, I acquire of a superb disc, sensual, sad and enivrant of which it project superintendent is not other than a sublime princess of the name of Marissa Nadler.The disc in question is called "Ballads of Living and Dying" and it is definitively my blow of heart of this end of the year in the slowcore kind.
Marissa's voice soars like the choir invisible on "Ballad To An Amber Lady," the opening track to the second volume of the Tom Rapp and Pearls Before Swine tribute trilogy, For the Dead In Space.. [On Ballads of Living and Dying] a gentle collection of folky ballads, highlighted by Nadler's hauntingly beautiful, angelic vocals. "Fifty Five Falls" opens the album with an achingly forlorn and lonely vocal over a haunting backing, while "Virginia" lightens the load somewhat with a lilting, swaying Leonard Cohen-esque melody. Marissa breaks out the banjo for "Stallions," one of those old time murder ballads that Timothy Renner does so well in his Stone Breath and, particularly, Spectral Light & Moonshine Firefly Snakeoil Jamboree projects. As such, it's a perfect candidate for his next Hand/Eye wyrdfolk compilation. The organ that dances around Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda's "Hay Tantos Muertos" ["There Are So Many Deaths"] adds a bit of hope and a touch of old European charm to her haunting interpretation. Finally, the album closes with another poignant murder ballad, "Bed of Solid Stone," an instant wyrdfolk classic. At the time of writing, Ms. Nadler was entertaining offers from several labels to release this gem. Whoever the winner of the "sign Marissa Nadler sweepstakes" is, they can rest assured they have one of the year's finest releases on their hands. -Jeff Penczak
Pyschedelic Homestead (Belgium)
Marissa's voice reminded me at first a bit of Elizabeth Rapp, who didn't appear on many songs of Tom Rapp's group Pearls Before Swine (back at the end of the 60's, early 70's), but what Marissa has created in mood is vivid here as well, be it in a more melancholic way. The arrangements are sparse and to the essence completely interwoven with the songs (guitar, accordion, amplified guitar, organ, banjo,). Each of these songs have a variety of very dark thoughts combined with gentle pure loveliness and absolute care. It is hard for me to go deeper into the songtexts, because who knows I can hardly experience the total depth of it. And it shows deeper waters of experiences. Her interpretation of "Annabelle Lee" on words of Edgar Allan Poe is simply brilliant. Other favourites are "Fifty Five falls", (I'll be your..)"Undertaker", and "Days of Rum" with banjo. I lack the words. A release I simply can not help but listen to again and again."
She's like a young Stevie Nicks, all doped up and duped to serve as Devendra Banhart's geisha. Nah, too strong for that. How 'bout Donovan reincarnated as Linda Ronstadt? Except instead of a '70s pop star, in this life she's Fairy Queen of the Muir Woods, a mythical creature spotted only by hippie chicks who dare to eat strange mushrooms and venture into the redwoods past nightfall. Or maybe she just sounds like a burnt-out Neko Case on a sad bender. You'll have to forgive me Û I woke up this morning feeling a wee bit simile. It's listening to this rare, ravishing recording, I think, that's done it. Marissa Nadler's music doesn't so much play from your speakers as it emanates. It's more subtle a sense than sound; her long, breathy tones hit like a smell, some nostalgic wisp that tickles the ol' factories, reminding you of past happenings you can't quite seem to remember. Or maybe ones you don't quite want to. Her debut's entitled Ballads of Living and Dying, but it's more of that last part that awakened Marissa's muse. Seems lots of records are springing up from the graves right about now; Panda Bear's got one Û hell, the Arcade Fire even named theirs Funeral. Nadler's debut slides nicely in that sarcophagus comp, bridging the gap between Regin» Chassagne's shrill soprano and Panda's minimal folk musings. These sepulchral ballads are built mostly upon a shaky guitar strum, a laboring four-part pick, a voice that drifts like chimney smoke. Yes, that's the smell you were trying to remember! That of fresh-burning firewood, of the first drop in the mercury that scares up kindling, of graying skies and grayer eyes. It's the all-encompassing sense of winter, the sights and sounds and smells as October passes to November and then December, and Marissa Nadler captures it perfectly here: a shivering slide-guitar that sings its own song on "Fifty Five Falls," or the metallic ring of a banjo, its notes falling like snowflakes, ushering in the decidedly Case-esque "Days of Rum." Every time her chilly instrumentation begins to bite, though, Nadler's voice wraps it up in a soft, safe blanket. It's the thing that'll keep you coming back to this, in the end; when you're longing for long days peering through glass panes, wrapping your hands around warm cocoa cups, smelling split cedar and smoldering oak, give the Fairy Queen a call. Devendra won't mind if you borrow her for a while." - Noah Bonaparte
Impeccably recorded and accompanied by Myles Baer, Marissa Nadler, with voice and finger, crafts beautifully ghostlike compositions with a preternatural ease. To say that there’s not one throwaway among the ten “ballads” on Living and Dying is to say much. Each piece, whether lightly disseminated, or plied in a deliberately witchy manner, is totally enthralling, either by way of Nadler’s milky voice or ebullient finger picking. And it’s really these two facets that stay in the forefront. Nadler’s voice, redolent of an early Stevie Nicks cum Hope Sandoval, moves from deeply staid to stickily rapturous – often within the confines of the same piece. And Nadler’s guitar works in similar extremes, with a hat off to Roy Harper and a nembutal’d nod to the most agreeable side of Mr. Donovan Leitch. The whole of Living, especially the tracks “Fifty Five Falls,” and “Mayflower May,” show Nadler to be somewhat of an anomaly: This record sounds like something to be slated for future reissue on Italy’s psych imprint Akarma, not released in the 21st century.Whether it’s the womby reverb of Nadler’s voice, or the solid expertise of her – and her accompanist’s – instrumental prowess, this is a record for repetitive listens and dark contemplation. , -Stewart Voegtlin, dusted magazine
I recently was on a business trip down to San Francisco and found myself in the amazing Aquarius Records. As I was shopping I was taken by the music that was playing over the system. It was the most beautiful folk-style music I had heard. Captivating is about the closest I can describe. This lady's voice just seeped into every I enquired on the artist and was told that it was Marissa Nadler. Ballads of Living and Dying is Marissa's first album and it is one of the finest examples of folk ballads in the past 10 years. The songs are romantic and yet very haunting in the same breath. There is not much to these songs. They are mostly just an acoustic instrument (guitar, banjo, etc) and her achingly beautiful voice. A little bit of studio trickery with echoing her voice but the production is very minimal. This just lends itself to the heartfelt music contained within. Any Gillian Welch fans should run out and grab Living and Dying. They may not go back to Gillian after they hear Nadler. Now I've just read an article on her in the latest Fader magazine. Hopefully she gets some exposure from that article. A new album is to be expected as early as April/May.-Dennis Scanland
Free Houston Press
Very rarely has an album's title so accurately been given as Marissa Nadler's "Ballads Of Living And Dying." All of the songs are about life and death, and the music arouses reflective thoughts and mourning and the darkness that looms over our decorative arrangements. Her finger picked guitar strums and ghost like timber touch the parts of your soul that you use pills and therapy to remedy. The album opener "55 Falls" opens the gate to this village, and re-introduces you to those things you thought were abandoned. "Mayflower May" is the walk a long the desolate countryside that inspires thoughts of the girl who never spoke in class, but her silence was like screaming. There are "happy" moments like "Box Of Cedar" which is basically is a celebration of life in the midst of the death. She sings "I'm going to tell everybody that I'm glad to see you, even though you're coming home in a box of cedar," and many parents and wives can relate to this as they see their loved ones returned deceased based on Bush's "intelligence" mistake. Then there are songs of realization like "Bird Song " where she sings, "You said my name so sweetly, that I took my clothes right off, " however she realizes that she heard the birds singing and it was not for her, so it gets sad again. I love this album and not because I like misery, but because it is a contrast to the shut up and party mentality that dominates popular culture, sometimes you need to sit your ass down and cry, or at least mourn.
The Saga of Mayflower May
Marissa Nadler's 2004 album Ballads of Living and Dying was a burnished gem of entrancing, spectral folk, and with her follow-up she not only returns to the luminous musical landscape of her debut but also to her enigmatic character Mayflower May. Though not the cohesive narrative its title implies, The Saga of Mayflower May again finds Nadler skillfully echoing the forms of traditional English balladry as she crafts another captivating collection of songs steeped in the melancholy of distant, half-forgotten passion, doomed love affairs, and various crimes of the heart. As a vocalist Nadler is considerably less idiosyncratic than such peers as Joanna Newsom or Josephine Foster, and here her dusky, lived-in soprano settles diffusely between contemporaries like Hope Sandoval and Chan Marshall, and 60s-era folkies like Vashti Bunyan or Mimi Farina. On these 11 tracks her arrangements are kept simple and powder dry, typically featuring only her 12-string guitar and the occasional flourish of organ, ukelele, or flute as accompaniment. With this spare instrumentation providing an understated backdrop, Nadler sounds increasingly relaxed and confident throughout the album, and each performance sparkles with haunting, rain-swept emotion. Tracks like "The Little Famous Song" and "Horses and Their Kin", are further distinguished by mesmerizing wordless passages where it almost sounds as though she's attempting to use her voice to approximate the lonesome shimmer of a singing saw.
The significance of the character Mayflower May to these songs is unclear. Nadler has previously described May-- who also made a couple appearances in the lyrics of Ballads of Living and Dying-- as a lonely old woman of faded beauty. And though May is never mentioned by name on any of these songs, perhaps one is to assume that nostalgia-laden, first-person accounts like the opening "Under an Old Umbrella" or the rapturous "Calico" are intended to feature May as narrator.
Also a talented visual artist, Nadler naturally fills her lyrics with color, and these songs abound with azure skies, turquoise eyes, and (especially) ruby red blood. On tracks like "Yellow Lights" and "Mr. John Lee (Velveteen Rose)" Nadler fearlessly enters traditional murder ballad territory, exquisitely depicting a world where love is forever shadowed by loss.
Curiously, for the dramatic "Lily, Henry, and the Willow Trees" the album's lyric sheet includes a final, particularly gory verse that leaves little doubt as to the fate of poor Lily. Perhaps finding these lines out of keeping with her music's otherwise deft, subtle touch, Nadler leaves them unsung, one of the few instances on this enthralling album where she pulls any punches whatsoever. - Matthew Murphy
Other Music (New York City)
The beautiful, sad love songs on Marissa Nadler's tremendous sophomore effort The Saga of Mayflower May are surprisingly even better than those on last year's widely acclaimed Ballads of Living and Dying . She's a singer-songwriter of a talent far beyond her young years. Her mysterious voice, which many critics have compared to Hope Sandoval's, is gorgeous and evocative, especially when it's layered in multi-tracked harmony. In the wake of last year's new folk explosion, I expected Nadler to have been picked up by a much larger label at this point, but she's still with the relatively obscure Eclipse imprint, run out of tiny Bullhead City, Arizona. Perhaps it's a display of Nadler's musical integrity. She may be a contemporary folkie, but she seems somewhat removed from the current trends. She doesn't have the "weird" voice of Joanna Newsom, or Devendra Banhart's eccentricity, or the experimentalism of Six Organs of Admittance. Instead, there's something a lot more classic and old-fashioned about her approach, which makes The Saga Of Mayflower May seem quite a bit more timeless than many of the other records that have been coming out of this genre. [RH]
Pyschedelic Homestead (Belgium)
A friend of mine, when visiting, was curious if I knew of another rich coloured voice like for instance, Sandy Denny. I couldn’t convince him with Mandy Morton, but Marissa Nadler blew him away. And indeed, each song of Marissa's shows its own worlds in poetry, in growth like a flower, shining gently, accompanied by the spiral-wards splendid acoustic guitarpicking. From her earlier demo with different, easier guitar, and with a beautiful transformed dark melancholic melody is “Yellow Lights”. “Old Love haunts me in the morning”, acoustic guitar, voice, and some piano, for me is almost like the voice of love itself, sadly unreachable, but therefore also beautiful and pure, as a spring-time condition. Somehow all inspirations on this album are as much related to nature, on various levels of inspiration.“Calico” might be something like her place into the picture. “Horses and their kin” is a perfect closer with 12-string guitar fingerpicking and various vocal chorus arrangements. Brilliant ! For me already one of my favourite releases of the last couple of years. A future classic ! It will be released by Eclipse Records in America and Beautiful Happiness, a new label from England, is putting it out for european listeners. Gerald Van Waes. Five Stars
Ed Hardy scooped up Ms. Nadler's marvelous debut 'Ballads of Living and Dying' for his eclectic Eclipse imprint based on the ecstatic word-of-mouth recommendations her CD-R was garnering among folk aficianados and the underground indie cognoscenti, including yours truly. Rewarded with one of last year's finest folk releases, Hardy and Eclipse bring us Nadler's sophomore effort, and I'm pleased to announce it exceeds the great expectations of her debut. Marissa seems more focused and relaxed this time out, and the sparse arrangements (essentially just Marissa and her acoustic guitar) of these eleven self-penned tracks deliver an intimate coffee house/living room vibe where every emotional nuance of her sweet lilting voice can be poked, pried and appreciated. Throughout, the reverbed vocals still bear more than a passing hint of Buffy Sainte-Marie, particularly on tracks like 'Mr. John Lee (Velveteen Rose),' but the swaying melodies and rolling guitar lines also have a distinct strolling minstral quality, and 'Old Love Haunts Me in the Morning' seems to have learned its melody from one of Marissa's inspired teachers, Leonard Cohen.Aiding and abetting Marissa's acoustic guitar backing, co-producer Brian McTear adds just the right flourish of Hammond organ to tracks like 'Mr John Lee' and 'My Little Lark,' Nick Castro's tin whistling on 'The Little Famous Song' adds a hint of melancholy to this lovely ditty, and Marissa breaks out her ukelele for 'In the Time of Lorry Low.' With her uncanny sense of melody that is often as simple yet memorable as a child's nursery rhyme or Medieval ballad (the latter track and 'The Little Famous Song' being perfect examples), there's a nostalgic air of familiarity about these songs - as if you've heard these melodies somewhere before - yet they are all strikingly new. The ability to make the new sound old again is one of Marissa's many endearing charms, making this perhaps more attractive to fans of traditional folkies like Vashti Bunyan or Alisha Sufit and the contemporary work of Sharron Kraus than the more pop-infected work of Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell. Regardless of your personal preferences, Nadler's infectious warmth is undeniable and these reflective, melancholic, ocassionally haunting ballads will remain with you long after the angelic choir of her soaring backing vocals on the final verse of the eerie closer, 'Horses and Their Kin' fades into the night. Another brilliant winner and, perhaps, the year's finest folk album. Jeff Penczak - May, 2005
Comes With A Smile Magazine
I’m sure that I’ve not been alone in double-taking Marissa Nadler’s contemporary status. ‘The Saga of Mayflower May’ is the greatest, lost acid-folk classic that I ever did hear, continuing the atmospheric groundwork of her debut album ‘Ballads of Living and Dying'. This is no mere pastiche, however: the strength of Nadler’s compositions may have roots in the traditions of American and Anglo Gaelic folk styles, stripped back post-psychedelia and even the heartbreak of Portuguese fado, but Nadler makes these disparate styles her own. Nadler’s emotional vibration of a voice, drawing comparisons as wide as Karen Dalton, Judy Dyble and Hope Sandoval, shimmers over cyclical Leonard Cohen-esque finger picked compositions for acoustic guitar, the proceedings fleshed out by tasteful use of organ, chimes and recorder. This release sees Nadler honing her craft by stripping back the arrangements and showcasing her considerable grasp of melody: songs like Yellow Lights and Famous Song instantly burrow deep into the listener’s psyche. Even though the strong melodies open a door into Nadler’s world, her domain is one shrouded in melancholy and mystery that subsequent listening fail to completely unravel. The eleven songs that comprise ‘Mayflower May’ generate an atmosphere of heat-haze distance, unveiling an uncompromising vision as personal as the likes of ‘Astral Weeks‘. A highly recommended release. -Simon Berkovitch
The Observer London
The trickle of bewitching new folk music coming out of the US has become a steady stream. After Devendra Banhart, Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom (the latter is an acquired taste) come the dulcet minor key compositions of Marissa Nadler, who can't fail to enchant even the most folk-proof listener. Like Sandy Denny at a seance, Nadler breathes her dusty soprano into songs about death and thwarted love. The Saga of Mayflower May is her second album and follows on seamlessly from last year's Ballads of Living and Dying, all circular plucking, wistful remembrance and pressed-flower country-gothic charm. 'Horses and Their Kin' is especially haunted. - Kitty Empire, the London Gaurdian
..[She] seems most at home in the spectral world of spooky...folk music. Her favourite lyrical theme - that one bad love can forever ruin a good woman – has plenty of precedents, but few such tales climax quite as brutally as the epic Lily, Henry and the Willow Trees. Scary as an evening alone with this record may be, one suspects it'd be less chilling than spending it with its creator.
...[She] infuses warmth into her dark ballads and sylvan shanties. (That and she handles her own guitar, ukelele, five-string banjo, organ, etc.) On her lovely debut, last year's Ballads of Living and Dying, Nadler avoids a pretentious chill even when retooling Edgar Allen Poe's "Annabelle Lee" or submerging herself in the drowning death of Virginia Woolfe. With the Saga of Mayflower May, the literary references aren't as obvious (the songs follow her alter ego, Mayflower May, through various quests), but Nadler's erudite melancholy and knack for wraith-like melody is even more distinctive. (Think of Neko Case swarthed in black). Despite her dusky aesthetic, she fills the songs with color: the almost upbeat strumming of "Yellow Lights" finds the protagonist "drinking rubies in the rain," while the narrator issues the warning, "Oh, Mary, don't you die/"Cause of the color of her eyes." Ominous closer, "Horses and Their Kin," complete with ghostly choir, talks of silver trees and a yellow moon amid a raging fire. There's freak folk or new-weird whatever, and then there's Nadler's gothic tinged folklore and crystalline choruses, which could've been penned centuries ago by Poe's lost maidens in crumbling mansions. Or, judging from Nadler's cover photo, perhaps Ophelia is a better fit. - Brandon Stosuy
The Saga of the Mayflower May runs it course like an elongated dream. The quiet solitude that permeates the album slowly surrounds the listener, as Nadler carefully leads the way through the darkness. It can be haunting at times, as in the oddly unsettling and eerie backings on “Horses and Their Kin” where Nadler meshes with the high backing vocals in a wash of reverb. The addition of some small, but effective, elements adds to the moodiness of the album and can elevate the expressiveness as well. When it comes to this carefully constructed brand of emotional folk, Marissa Nadler still delivers a dreamlike meshing of sadness and reflection.
...This urgency carries into the album’s finale, “Horses and Their Kin”, a fevered dream cast in the moonlight of the Salem woods. The tinny guitar notes race forward, her voice tangling with a wind-whipped moan of vocal harmony. The song is neither as rigorous or rhythmic as “Annabelle Lee”, but it’s every bit as hauntingly macabre, boasting a quality of immediacy that can, at times, be absent in Nadler’s straight-backed folk. When it’s there, few in the New Folk clique can rival her bewitching talent.
I have been forced to part company with all the other new folk songstresses, as there is no room in my world now for anyone but Marissa Nadler, whose voice is so lovely and bewitching that it spins me senseless until I find myself wandering aimlessly in a dark wood with no clue how to get home. Her voice is mysterious and enchanting, whispery and fragile, but also enunciative and matronly, seductive but elegiac. I can detect shades of Hope Sandoval or Elizabeth Fraser, perhaps, but also darker strains of Linda Perhacs or The Trees' Celia Humphries. But just when you think that Marissa Nadler's voice is just a gentle, lilting, massaging instrument, there comes a coarse little edge of Anne Briggs and Shirley Colllins, but when you try to grab hold, she has receded further into the forest, and her voice echoes off of the canopy of trees and disappears into the wilderness. The Saga of Mayflower May is Ms. Nadler's second album, and it's vaguely conceptual, with each song a different chapter in a cloth-bound book of murder ballads, the kind decorated with pressed flowers and handwritten love letters. The lyrics are a glorious collection … full of turquoise-colored eyes of lovers, fields of green and skies of azure, and spoilt maidens silently bleeding to death beneath wild weeping willows, or drowned in rivers by scorned suitors. The fact that her songs play on such familiar lyrical themes works to Ms. Nadler's advantage, as it seems she is pulling from some vast collective unconscious archive of British and Appalachain folk ballads, which makes the emotional impact of the music quite stealthy. I was almost lulled into complacency when "Damsels in the Dark" began, and I was rudely awakened by its spooky refrain: "Photographs of your face, against the wind/Against the rain, I'm gonna burn them all/And bury your name." Marissa plays all of the guitars, including 12-string and ukelele, and is joined on a few tracks by Brain McTear and Nick Castro… There are moments of pure hypnotic beauty on this record, when just at the appropriate time, Marissa's vocals are multitracked and overlaid, creating richly evocative harmonies, a chorus of forest witches answering each lyric with spine-tingling echoes. What I really respond to in Marissa Nadler's music is… its lack of pretension and self-conscious kookiness... I have spun The Saga of Mayflower May more than any other album I've gotten lately, and I'm far from ready to take it out of my player. - Jonathan Dean