Review: Marissa Nadler at Joe’s Pub 3/4/09

If you’ve heard anything about Marissa Nadler, you know her voice grabs listeners by the shoulders, firmly plants them in their seat, and tells them to shut their trap and listen, not unlike a kindergarten teacher. But what you don’t hear much about in scribbles about Marissa Nadler is her musicianship. Playing the bulk of the show all alone in front of the intimate room, she showed off a number of good qualities, including the ability to craft complex songs and confidently (though not thoughtlessly) fingerpick her way through as the sole backdrop for her enchanting vocals.

Interestingly, somewhere in her musical background, Nadler must have picked up some bluegrass chops, because a number of her songs rely on an interesting method whereby she plays the one and three beat country bassline on her low strings, while using her fingernail to scratch/strum the chord on the two and four. Also, on the instrumental side, a number of her songs call to mind relatively complicated sectionals that for one reason or another reminded me of the Smashing Pumpkins.

I can’t say I really know her repertoire too well as this show served as our introductory meeting, but a few tunes stood out. The track Sylvia left quite an impression, in part because it’s gorgeous and enchanting, but also because I had no idea what the hell she was taking about; something about meeting somebody in the belly of a whale. Another notable was a new tune called Ghosts and Lovers off her latest release, Little Hells; probably one of her simplest in terms of song structure as she incorporates a warm droning fingerpick that, in conjunction with her singing, crafts a warm, sleepy lullaby vibe.

For the latter part of the show, Marissa Nadler brought out a guitar, bass, and keys to back her, but this was not a highlight. The band, comprised of members of the band Tulsa, while not offensive in any way, clearly did not know the material well enough to really shake loose and remained very reserved for the duration of their stay. This was their first performance together and they admittedly just learned the songs just a few days prior, so this should improve by the time they tour in across the US and Canada in April and Europe in May.

To wrap up the show, Nadler proved she’s no one trick pony as she closed out the performance with an anomalous interpretation of Bruce Springsteen’s I’m on Fire and wrapped up by bringing out her banjo – further proving that bluegrass hypothesis – for a lovely juxtaposition with her singing voice. Marissa Nadler’s music is not for every day of the week or every part of every day, but she is a bright talent, a weird bird, and a brilliant vocalist. Welcome to prime time.

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