Songwriter Marissa Nadler's first two albums of home recordings, 2004's Ballads of Living and Dying and 2006's Saga of Mayflower May, were both issued by Eclipse and got plenty of traction from reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic. Homemade, sparsely produced, with mysterious, engaging covers, she took the critics' and punter's ears by storm, though in her homeland of America, she remained almost unheard of. Her extensive European touring attracted the notice of the U.K.'s fine Peacefrog imprint that issued Song III: Bird on the Water earlier in 2007. The album has been licensed by the Kemado label in the U.S. and is being given the proper release treatment it deserves. Nadler, who is continually associated with the freak folk underground, is actually far from it. She may be a fiercely independent artist, and her songs may be rooted in times past -- from 18th and 19th century Celtic root sources to the psychedelic folk scene -- before it got polished up in Laurel Canyon in the late '60s, yet Nadler is a very sophisticated songwriter. Her lyrics never complicate her songs, even when drenched in symbolism and obscure references that are never labored. She is also a fine guitar player who possesses a strange and wonderfully pleasant singing voice. Her earlier recordings have emerged from their humble homemade origins to gain a small but faithful audience because they're solid, and full of dark and lithe songs about people, places and situations past and present -- even if the past is distant history. The small, even skeletal production values on her previous discs only served to underscore the strength in the material itself.
On Song III, Nadler ups the ante. These songs may have been written in her bedsit, but they are executed on this disc with the kind tiny grandeur they deserve. In some ways, listening to Nadler is akin to listening to Tom Rapp of Pearls Before Swine (she covered a track of theirs on a compilation disc a while back). There is a directness to her delivery and she never flinches from her material, yet she sounds out of this time and space at the same moment. Recorded by Greg Weeks in Philadelphia, Nadler surrounds herself with a small group of very attentive and sympathetic musicians. Weeks plays synth and distorted lead guitar parts; Helena Espvall sits at the cello; Orion Rigel Dommisse appears on mandolin and harp; and Otto Hauser lends a hand on percussion. At the center of every song is Nadler's guitar playing: fingerpicked, rhythmic, and full of a kind of forward movement that sometimes stands at delightful odds with the timelessness of her lyrics and singing voice.
On this 11-song set, ten are originals, and the lone cover is daunting: Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat," which adds new meaning to the songwriter's words and even Jennifer Warnes' excellent interpretation. The standout tracks -- though all are excellent, deeply moving and emotionally taut -- are "Feathers," "Diamond Heart," "Silvia," and "Mexican Summer." They talk of loss, death, grief, the brokenness in love, transgression, and the appearance of being able to move freely among these very strong emotions while becoming so informed by them: her world view and her heart's view are not only informed by them, but inseparable from them. Nadler has written a song suite here that fully articulates her strongest gifts: she never has to reach for notes, only to open her mouth and they pour like honey, slowly, purposefully, and look at the smaller entrances where her imaginative narratives enter the human being and root themselves there for lifetimes. There are no seams in this album, and to quote her lyric poetry out of the context from the music would be an injustice.
Song III is not to be compared with any of the recordings of her contemporaries. She falls for none of the traps, she communicates with a kind of gentle candor that is unsettling, elegant, and utterly graceful. This is music that is violent in its ability to shift the listener's attention toward it, but it is delivered gently, slowly, and purposefully. For those who have been seduced by the works of Buffy Sainte-Marie's Illuminations album, Tom Rapp's later solo work, the recordings of Bill Fay, late Current 93, Antony, Michael Cashmore, Leonard Cohen's early material, or the middle period records of Pearls Before Swine, this is certainly for you. For anyone looking for early Joni Mitchell or Joanna Newsom, search elsewhere. Disturbing, beautiful and unforgettable, Song III: Bird on the Water is among the most arresting recordings of 2007 thus far and sets a new high-water mark for this seemingly limitless songwriter. [The purchase of the CD comes with a coupon for an Internet download -- in 192 kps, MP3, or FLAC -- for an additional four-song EP which includes a stunning reading of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer."]