Nina Nastasia, Scala, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Click to follow

"Think there's a storm coming," mused Nina Nastasia halfway through the gig. Isn't there always in Nastasia's songs? Beloved of John Peel and the grunge-era linchpin Steve Albini, the New York singer-songwriter is alt.Americana's woman in black: dressed severely tonight, as ever, she played spare songs about death, heroin, withered hope and altogether darker matters. Stormy emotional weather, indeed.

Her songs are less about the thunder, though, than intimations of things either about to go or gone awry. Over four albums, she's pared down her song-poem style to a point where skeletal surfaces only need to hint at her characters' back-stories for impact. She doesn't overburden their tales with analysis or self-pity: instead, she anatomises the emotions at stake with needlepoint precision.

Of the tracks Nastasia played from her new album, On Leaving, "Why Don't You Stay Home" is particularly layered. There's no sentiment in lyrics such as "Things might not get better/ There, I said it", nor in the clarity of her cut-glass vocal. The song is a plea to a lover, husband or father to stay "where you're loved", but there's a heartbreaking hint of futility. As she sang: "The last time you were feeling like this/ You left with a light coat and you froze to death," it sounded like a song for a ghost.

This suggestion of complex undercurrents was central to the arrangements. They relied largely on vocals and guitar, but a backing trio provided eloquent shading. Some unfolded as soft funereal marches, while others hinted at a grunge influence by switching stealthily from quiet to loud.

There was still warmth and dark wit, though. As a fan demanded "Treehouse Song", Nastasia retorted: "I'm definitely your private dancer." She told a deliciously wicked anecdote about a friend who got stuck to a microphone by an electric shock while singing: "This is odd banter," she said, with a sly grin.

A black night, then, but intimate too, especially on Nastasia's solo encore of the gorgeous "All Your Life". As she sang about a man hoping that a woman will return ("She's never coming back/ And all this waiting is bringing you down"), we didn't know whether "she" died or left him, or how, or why. Either way, the mix of tough love, private drama and pure delivery pulled you right into the storm's eye.

Comments