Outlaster (Fat Cat)
On her sixth album (and sixth straight good album), the enigmatic art-folkie expands her arrangements and her singing to incorporate Brecht/Weill dramatics ("This Familiar," "What's Out There") and snake-charmer sensuality ("You're a Holy Man"). But even amid the strings and horns and pummeling tom-toms, restraint is what gives her music its tension. Nastasia has an alluring storm cloud of a voice that she keeps partly in check, as if she's afraid of what will come out. The details in her lyrics are as sharp as ever ("You can have my sixth-grade picture/Can I have the one of us mooning?"), and the near-gothic melancholy as deeply felt. But there's also a new sense of acceptance. On the opening track, "Cry, Cry, Baby," she charts a breakup with the hard wisdom of experience: "This work, it won't kill me/But I'm not stronger for it/ I've just learned to wait it out."
Produced like all her albums by Steve Albini, Outlaster shows again Nastasia's gift for unexpected melodic turns, but she amplifies them with swoops and swirls that in the past have been mostly implied. There is a lot of confidence in this record, the sense of an artist ready to move beyond the templates she has constructed for herself. It's an album of serious ambition and persistent mystery. I might personally prefer the nervous clatter of You Follow Me, her terrific 2007 duo album with Australian drummer Jim White. Others might direct you to the dark drones of Run to Ruin, from 2003. But Outlaster is an affecting, imaginative work from an underheralded and distinct talent.