On July, her debut for Sacred Bones, Marissa Nadler strips away the metaphorical language that has been a hallmark in her songwriting--even when it was self referential. She speaks in the first person charting the aftermath of a devastating romantic relationship. These songs are colored in deep, gauzy American Gothic in lyric, melody, and production -- the latter provided by Randall Dunn (Earth, Akron/Family, Wolves in the Throne Room). Nadler's lithe vocals and fingerpicked acoustic guitar are, as always, at the forefront of these 11 songs. They are adorned by enough reverb to make them feel as if they were frozen in time. Among Nadler's accompanists are violist/string arranger Eyvind Kang, guitarist Phil Wandscher, and keyboardist Steve Moore. Opener "Drive" charts the ephemeral, haunted memory of a road trip with her former lover. Grief and desire coexist in recollections of songs on the radio, road signs, shared glances and thoughts, and what's left -- his property rotting in her back seat. Jason Kardong's forlorn pedal steel undercores her vocal. Despite its tender parlor-esque melody -- which walks a line between Stephen Foster and early 20th century country music -- "Firecrackers" reframes her absent lover as her attacker in documenting the song cycle's origin: "...July 4th of last year/We spilled all the blood/How'd you spend all your summer days?...." "Was It a Dream" features Wandscher's reverbed electric guitar introducing the lyric, and later delivering a weighty, sparse solo. Textured by Kang's strings, Nadler reveals a "lost" year, wondering if this relationship was "a dream or something sinister." The beauty in songs like these is that they don't merely engage in an exorcism or catharsis, but offer an evolutionary process; experience gets integrated into the fabric of everyday life as it goes on -- whether she wants it to or not. As strings, acoustic guitar, and synths swirl about her voice on "Desire," she relates the album's bitterest truth: "I sent my song too soon/You didn't free me at all/And I barely needed you...I had it all wrong/I was about to believe/I could fall for you/And you had eyes for me/You got it all wrong/I was about to believe/That you had desire for me...." Dunn's commitment here is to avoid anything that would deviate from the inherent power of Nadler's singing or entrancing guitar playing. Because of the material and the inspired collaboration between songwriter, performers, and producer, July unfolds as a harroing, but near-perfect song cycle.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek