Nadine – Coming into their own
The former U.S. poet laureate Howard Nemerov, who spent his final years in St. Louis, had a wonderfully insightful take on the subject of artistic influence. “When you begin, you write ‘the grass is green’ and everyone says ‘Aha! Wallace Stevens.’ Twenty years later you write ‘the grass is green,’ and it sounds just like you.”
Back in the early 1990s, when Nadine frontman Adam Reichmann was making his name with Sourpatch, there were the inevitable (and not entirely inappropriate) comparisons, both musically and lyrically speaking, to those other St. Louis-area roots-rock, folk-inflected artists, Farrar and Tweedy. And there were frequent, and even more apt, references to Neil Young, a relationship Reichmann did little to discourage, punctuating many live gigs with a ferocious rendition of “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”.
These days nobody is mistaking Reichmann for any of those artists. Oh, to be sure, his bittersweet, honey-mustard twang will always have indelible traces of Young’s soulful chirp. But Nadine has created a distinctive sound and vision that balance, and expand upon, Reichmann’s competing pressures.
For example, 1999’s Downtown Saturday was a thoroughly successful colloquy between the band’s folk sensibility and its rock ‘n’ roll heart. The songs themselves had emotional depth and philosophic range, alternating with grace and verve between spacious, propulsive rockers and beautiful, melancholy ballads. Most important was the band’s insistence on the healing power of music. “I’m gonna sleep with the radio on,” Reichmann sang in the album’s most revealing song, “so that I don’t miss you.”
On its new disc, Lit Up From The Inside, Nadine raises the positive tension between straightforward acoustic music and playful experimentation to new, at times enthralling heights. The band has tightened its writing and arrangements while simultaneously creating bigger, more evocative soundscapes. There are healthy doses of the expected rootsy folk-rock that encompasses both sides of Rust Never Sleeps — but there are also quirky, delightful touches of technology.
A number of things have aided Nadine’s progress. First and foremost, there is the camaraderie of the band, and the importance they place in being part of a team. “A band is the last great form of collaborative art,” Reichmann says. “This is more of a band record.”
Most of the songs were written in the studio, with the whole band contributing to the writing process. While Reichmann is still responsible for what he calls “seeds and ideas,” many chords and arrangements evolved during the recording process.
Moreover, the band wanted its words to make a statement. “The current craze,” Reichmann suggests, “is to completely abstract subject matter. We have a mission to bring lyric writing back to reality. Songs have to be about something. We really believe that.”
While no one could justly accuse earlier Nadine songs of drifting too far from the shore of clearly defined subjects, the lyrics on Lit Up From The Inside are a bit more concise and compressed than in the past, though no less resonant. “Streets”, for example, begins with a terse physical description of a walk through the city, but subtly turns into the story of a life:
“Streets cold as the concrete crying/Doorways hard as the daylight dying/Places I walk the sun doesn’t touch/I never asked the world for much/Dreams were the only thing that I got/Go ask around/I dream a lot.”
While most of the songs address interpersonal relationships, “Losing Track” offers some pointed, trenchant political commentary. “Mr. Shapiro, have you read the Silent Spring?” the song asks, taking direct aim at the CEO of St Louis-based pesticide company Monsanto. Reichmann is referring, of course, to Rachel Carson’s visionary ’60s tome, which raised public consciousness about the overuse of pesticides years before it became fashionable.
(Would-be critics of literary references be warned: Anyone remotely familiar with St. Louis bookstores, especially the now-defunct Paul’s Books on Delmar and the Left Bank in the West End, will remember Adam Reichmann as far and away the most erudite and widely-read clerk in town.)
The addition of Hazeldine bassist Anne Tkach has also been a positive change. The band used “a revolving door” of bass players before Tkach joined the band last year; Reichmann says she has quickly “become part of our heart and soul. With her, an emotional side of the band has opened up.”
Tkach’s smooth integration into the band has led to some slightly different dynamics. While Reichmann and bassist/drummer/engineer Todd Schnitzer have played together for years, and “communicate telepathically,” Reichmann and multi-instrumentalist Steve Rauner have intensified their relationship, with appealing results.
“Me and Steve worked very closely on melodies,” Reichmann notes. “My melodies and his countermelodies vibe off each other well. He’s a very active, but very tasteful player. He doesn’t walk all over everything.”
Rauner also supplements his string-instrument playing with keyboards. An expert on the Hammond B3, Rauner has learned to import its thick, moody textures, which have, in turn, inspired some of Reichmann’s most impassioned vocal work to date. Throughout the new album, Rauner’s playing and Reichmann’s singing seem like old lovers anticipating and responding to each other’s moves.
In a particularly sublime moment, on “Lead The Way”, Rauner’s sweet, bluegrassy mandola picking cradles Reichmann’s voice so effortlessly and convincingly that the song’s lyric addresses the instrument as much as it does a lover: “I’m in tune/Mesmerized/The path before me there it lies/When you lead the way, lead the way.”
Most of Rauner’s guitar work is straightforward and elegant in the spirit of his formative influences. “I like guitar players who play simple parts with meaningful melody,” he says, pointing to Greg Lisher of Camper Van Beethoven, Billy Zoom of X, Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos as examples.
However, much of the synergy driving Lit Up emerged from some serendipitous techno-doodling. “We experimented a lot,” Rauner says. “That other voice in my head is tinkering with effects and amps, trying to see what weird things there are to discover.”
“End Of The Night”, for example, opens with a sound that simulates a record scratch, which Rauner discovered by accident, rubbing his strings into a loop. The simple, playful effect sets a giddy, exuberant tone, which the song builds upon until it threatens to explode. The song has the sexy, nervous energy of its obvious precursor, Bruce Springsteen’s “Prove It All Night”, and like so much of Springsteen’s music, “End Of The Night” triumphs by refusing to distinguish between eros and music: “I want to go to the darkness of day/Where my favorite records play/And there are feelings I don’t want to fight/Like taking you to the end of the night.”
To be sure, Nadine knows when to back off electronic sophistication and let fingers and voices do what they do best. The gorgeous “Every One Sided Story” was recorded a la the Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Session, with a single microphone in the center of a circle, and it has the quiet grandeur of that masterpiece.
It also doesn’t hurt that Nadine has what amounts to its own playground — Undertow, a collective that takes on a variety of print design, film, and multimedia projects. studio (Mark Ray, of the band Waterloo, and Mark Chechik are other partners in the venture.)
“Without Undertow,” Reichmann says, “we wouldn’t be a band. It provides us with resources, with a flexible workspace, our own place to make noise. It also allows us to manufacture and sell our own records. We’ve never had to sign a deal we weren’t prepared for.”
Nadine is represented in Europe by the German label Glitterhouse, and has in fact developed a sizable European following. “We’re a little perplexed with it ourselves,” says Reichmann. “We had a fanatical group of Germans follow us from gig to gig. German audiences are an intense lot, who tend to listen intellectually. And I think they respond to the theatrical nature of our live shows.”
In the British Isles, though, the appeal was all about the music. “In Scotland,” Reichmann relates, “our sound won us a mixed audience. There were a lot of older folks, people stuck between rock and folk.”
Nadine has also created a few waves on this side of the pond recently. “Without A Reply”, the opening song on Lit Up From The Inside, was featured in MTV’s recent original movie The Matthew Shepard Story, as part of the network’s yearlong “Fight For Your Rights” campaign.
What continues to be most impressive and promising about Nadine, though, is that each recording is better than the last. While many thirtysomething musicians begin to reconsider their career choices, Nadine remains committed to music.
“Everybody tells you, don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” Reichmann says, “but fuck it, we’ve only got one basket.”