You Follow Me (FatCat, 2007)
by Nina Nastasia & Jim White
originally published at Dusted Magazine
If You Follow Me were perfectly executed, it would be a short set of 10 agreeable, pensive songs about fretful love and triumphant loss, and it would be much less interesting. It's so easy to imagine a lesser duo playing these songs straight-faced and seamlessly, but Nina Nastasia and Jim White do not earn their considerable value as artists by that kind of simplicity. Imprecision and flaws make this album sing, a calculated lack of calculation: it helps to think of it as a dialogue, but only if you leave room for the interruptions, the pointless asides, the swallowed ends of phrases. It's not hard to make a record sound intimate, but intimate opacity like this is a feat.
Collaboration is nothing new to either artist - especially not to White, who tends to get called in whenever just a drummer won't do. White has been in Nastasia's backing band since Run To Ruin, but this is the first time they've gone on record alone together, as it were. "Alone together" is actually another good term to keep in mind, because the many simple obstacles to coalescence in the dialogue end up being the most communicative elements of all. You Follow Meis a pleasingly deceptive title because it's hard to say for sure who's doing the leading.
Granted, this is fairly familiar, not to say proprietary, territory for Nastasia. She writes austere, second-person lyrics full of nostalgia and reprisal, plays the guitar with the same solemn range of emotions as some women light cigarettes, and has one of the loveliest voices in music. On the conceptual surface this is her affair, her place to brood and confess and think out loud ("After we darken up our home / You see my hands are trembling from an uneasy knowing / Maybe a moth can live this way"). But White's drumming, especially early on, is the more arresting presence. He's not quite interfering, but he's certainly not accompanying.
White's reputation as an inventive percussionist precedes him here, because often enough he seems to be not finding the rhythms implicit in the quiet spaces but troubling them. He and Nastasia ebb and flow together tonally, and the on-a-dime mood changes now and then prove they're working in tandem, but much of the time they sound at cross purposes. Sometimes they click, but seldom for a whole song; other times he wanders or seems to outpace himself, as in opener "I've Been Out Walking"; sometimes he makes a great clattering mess, like a trap kit tumbling down a long flight of stairs. It's not a question of technique or of control (listen to "The Day I Would Bury You," or just look at his résumé) — it's a question of his side of the conversation.
The fluid dynamic between Nastasia and White is what supplies the humanity of You Follow Me, the inscrutability that makes it engaging. His absent rumblings in the background of "Our Discussion" while she affirms and reaffirms "I don't believe in the power of love" make for a cruel split-screen effect (see, for comparison, how much colder this is than the version that appeared on Boom Bip's Blue Eyed in the Red Room); their tender convergence in "How Do I Love You" almost convinces you that they're singing to one another, he in delicate cymbal washes and she in her marvelous, unaffected lilt.
This is the kind of simplicity for which we need Nastasia and White, individually or together. The collaboration does justice to the knotty eloquence of Nastasia's work - sometimes at the expense of its song-to-song staying power, but with an unparalleled resonance overall. It's at once a lovers' duet, a bitter divorce album, and a circular dialogue between the spurned soul and the sympathetic, quietly predatory friend.back