Marissa Nadler - July
Record Label - Sacred Bones
Release Date - February 4, 2014
I lamented in November that it felt like Marissa Nadler and an assortment of other singer-songwriters (mainly women like Alela Diane, Emily Jane White, and others) hadn't gotten their fair due, mostly because music journalists hadn't found a good moniker to attach as shorthand for their music. Sure, we can file chillwave bands around in our collective memory, but Nadler, whose celebrating her seventh album with the release of July, seems to float on the outside of collective indie consciousness. Obviously, there are undoubtedly numerous factors that go into this. First, indie folk, generally, never quite hits the vein of indie culture the same way that, say, a more electric driven group does. The notable exceptions to this are probably Fleet Foxes and The Shins. Second, and this is probably the harder pill to swallow--Nadler's a woman and indie rock has a woman problem. Don't believe me? Read up on the overwhelmingly male response to P4k People's list from 2012. Sure, we can go into the difficulty of defining indie and whether or not that list is actually a solid barometer. However, I'd argue that it at least is a barometer, and if nothing else at least measures people who read P4k, which are people who are, largely, tastemakers. Therefore, it's worse than we thought. So, sad to say, it doesn't really surprise me that Nadler doesn't get the respect she's due (at seven albums of strong quality, why isn't she in the same iconic air as Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Malkmus, Yo La Tengo, Neko Case?) especially when you consider the speed and methods by which she's achieved her success.
We've had a special relationship with Nadler on this blog. She was one of the first artists who admitted to reading (shock) what we wrote, and for a time she wrote for us as well. Our long-term fascination with her music has been a running theme and subject of posts, and I think, for good reason (and one which feeds into my previous musings about her stature in indie) as Nadler continues to create records chock-a-block with the most haunting, subtle, and complex tunes you can find. July is no exception. Throughout the album, Nadler weaves her sonic trademarks -- repetitive fingerpicking; delicate, ethereal vocals; and a multi-layered song structure relying on atmosphere and mood to draw the reader into an intimate soundscape. Perhaps the most intriguing development on this record is the incorporation of Ronald Dunn (Earth, SoundO)))), who produced the album. Intriguingly, Dunn seems to foreground the lower register of Nadler's voice and push the more atmospheric vocality back, creating a three-dimensionality which serves Nadler's songwriting extremely well.
Of course, all I had to do was click over to last.fm to see Nadler's biography and the phrase "dream folk" attached to her music. I did quick Google search, and couldn't determine the origin of this term, which may be impossible given the uber-democritization of the internet and the fact that anyone with a last.fm account can edit her bio. But, I think the term works. July, like Nadler's other records, merges a folk tradition with more avant leanings think Steve Reich meets Edgar Allan Poe. But, by terming Nadler's music "dream folk," I'm not attempting to "tag" her music but establish something more substantial, a critical school that we can use to describe and analyze what she does. And, given Nadler's art training, the term school seems to be the most useful as it implies an affiliation of thought and dedication to seeing that through a particular way of making music. Rather than trying to draw people into this school -- I've already suggested others that I think could fit -- my goal here is to use Nadler as kind of template for dream folk, which as the following characteristics:
1. An emphasis on melodic singing with layered harmonies
2. Repetitive and cyclical structure, breaking down and rearranging traditional folk song structures
3. A balance between atmosphere and narrative in the songs, with narrative often working to enhance rather than overpower atmosphere.
This is a type of music that Nadler's been crafting for years with adherents to her particular school cropping up more and more as the years wear on. Her prolific output of records speaks to not only her dedication and the depth of her work, but also to that folky-impulse to get as much material out there as possible.
With each new record, we seem to hear a different aspect of Nadler's musicality. While her previous two albums, Marissa Nadler and The Sister, showed Nadler's dedication to handcrafting (she released both on her own Box of Cedar Records), on July Nadler seems to bemoan the loss of personal control which she exercised on these records. "Drive," July's opener, begins: "If you ain't made it now / You're never gonna make it." Amid a backdrop of angelic vocals, Nadler's voice seems to bubble up from the underground. That first couplet, for long-term listeners of Nadler, is breathtaking. Her voice comes through with a force and direction that I'm not sure that I've heard from her in quite the same way.
The move to Sacred Bones has opened a range of possibilities for Nadler which can be readily heard in the orchestration of her songs. On "1923," the slow lurching of the song unfurls behind a backing of strings and horns. Nadler's gossamer vocals shimmer through "Was It a Dream" as she questions whether the past year with a lover was a dream or a curse. Here, the dimensionality of the song is particularly acute as it seems to be pulling in all directions -- lead vocals, backing vocals, a fuzzy guitar pulses through a soaring string section which seems to pull the song to an ominous (or heavenly?) conclusion. The joy of listening to July is that while there's always been something metaphysical about Nadler's dream folk concoctions, this record seems to put a stronger emphasis on the physical. There's an earthiness and surprisingly strong punches in Nadler's record. And, it's this strength which allows us another opportunity to bask in songs by one of the greatest and under-appreciated songwriters working today.