"The problem with talking about Nina," says Steve Albini, the legendary Chicago recording engineer, "is when you describe her, it sounds like you're describing terrible music. It sounds like you're describing pure shit. 'Y'know, there's this sad story, and acoustic guitar....'''
Albini (known for his work with the Pixies, Nirvana, et al., as well as for being one of music's most incorrigible grumps) hits on a conundrum posed by Nina Nastasia. The New York City singer-songwriter's eerily epic albums inspire as much confusion as awe. Some hear Nastasia's music--with its vocal twang, dark-black storytelling and acoustic instrumentation--as a gothic Peggy Lee bingeing on drony Americana. But Nina Nastasia is no O Brother, Where Art Thou? junkie. What gives?
"Why does anything happen in our culture?" Albini says."People are idiots. We have an incredibly lazy critical class and a morbidly disinterested listening audience."
Nastasia, a Manhattanite who grew up listening to her parents' Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Edith Piaf, elicits reverence among some of the least reverent people around. At Austin's South by Southwest festival earlier this year, her set reduced a sloshed crowd to silence.
But even fans of The Blackened Air, Nastasia's dusky 2002 album, may have trouble with Run to Ruin, 31 minutes of truth-telling documented by Albini. The album is a compact, unsparing collection of short-short stories dressed down in acoustic guitar, viola, cello and the careful brushes of Dirty 3 drummer Jim White.
If Run to Ruin says anything, it is that quiet stories told with fiddles and saws can (and do) exist outside of the folk tradition. Nina Nastasia's aural world is of another time and place, but she is no old-timey purist mining the past. In detailing her skeletons, she portends a future implacably headed our way.
"When I listen to her music, I feel like I'm gonna die," says Albini. "There's a claustrophobic quality that I really enjoy. She's doing what a lot of people try to do: write songs in a non-stylized way. The content and the greatness comes across, not some stylistic gimmick, not some intellectual conceit."
Nina Nastasia plays Wednesday, July 2,3 at Berbati's Pan, 231 SW Ankeny St., 248-4579. Carissa's Wierd and Dolorean also appear. 9:30 pm. $8. 21+.