PITCHFORK "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
NPR 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 -
Interview Magazine 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 otherslending 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.
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