The self-taught singer/songwriter Marissa Nadler has been best known for her voice (described as “ethereal vibrations” by none other than The New York Times), but she’s also self-taught as a guitarist, playing bass with her thumb and rhythm with her fingers (similar to the Travis picking style). On her latest, Little Hells, Nadler lets her guitar work shine alongside her voice, restraining some of the over-choral of her last, Songs III: Bird on the Water, pairing it with sweet alt-country twang that makes for a memorable record.
While the stripped, high beauty of opener “Heart Paper Lover” is a little stark to open Hells, from there the record is more accessible, employing both Nadler’s remarkable voice and instrumentation, without letting either go overboard. The lost twang of “Rosary”, the ominous drumming of “Mary Come Alive”, or the sad enchant of “Brittle, Crushed & Torn” all stand up well, but the best representation of what the songstress can do is “Ghost & Lovers”: stripped to its meaning, the piece cuts into the listener.
Nadler doesn’t have to play it stripped to excel, however, as “The Whole Is Wide” brings a memorable choral tragedy, though the penultimate “Loner” misses in its combination of strum and choral. But her most interesting piece of instrumentation lays between those two on Hells, “River of Dirt”, with the backbeat not only standing out, but also complimenting her flowing vocals.
On finisher “Mistress”, Marissa Nadler gives a laid-back send-off to misery and the mistress, in full alt-country mode. That’s a hallmark of Little Hells, as the singer/guitarist moves forward, breaking hearts on a path into the sunset.