Having never visited Phoenix’s Voodoo Lounge before, I’m taken by pleasant surprise as I walk in. The faded lighting and relative quietude of the room is a welcome change from the noisome hordes of The Damned occupying the ground floor. Half hidden gem, half tranquil cocoon and 100% malformed pretentious metaphor, my depiction of the Voodoo Lounge is immaterial to some extent, but the space instantly strikes me as conducive to the evening’s music. Once the audience settles in, Mary Lattimore graciously fills the human shaped vacuum next to the rather majestic looking harp at the front of the room.
Anyone unfamiliar with Lattimore’s work would likely have been lulled into a false sense of security by a couple of minutes. After her serene opening display, a different sort of beauty entirely begins to emerge from her music. Every now and then, the seamless flow of notes warps and dives, drawing attention to the rather innocuous looking sampler on her lap (because what doesn’t look innocuous next to a harp?). Though she exercises a nice balance of charming melody and experimental manipulation, never allowing the music to become saturated in self-indulgence, her use of electronics is impressively protean. Throughout her short set, she intersperses samples of string-scraping, wood-knocking and other improvised percussion into the mix, veering surprisingly close to noise music for an artist whose music might be initially characterised as ‘folksy’. At times, the interaction of the two instruments is an exercise in creation, building up layers and layers of melodies upon one another, or allowing the graceful reversed sweep of the harp to drift through her carefully constructed melodic architecture. On other occasions, destruction abounds, casting the meticulously organised permutations into the murky depths of distortion. All things considered, it’s pretty riveting stuff.
As Mary Lattimore makes her way through a well-deserved wall of applause and departs the room, Marissa Nadler and her band take the stage. The setup itself offers a glimpse of what’s to come: a keyboard, a fretless bass, rutes, a lap-steel… all instruments well-equipped to convey the spacious and rich tapestry of Nadler’s music with such a limited group of musicians. She wastes little time before launching into the title track of her latest album, Strangers, and following up with fan favourite Drive. Both are mournful and melancholy, although in different ways – the former is a shadowy, smoky haze of lost identity and confusion, augmented by some excellent full-band backing; the latter leans more towards Nadler’s earlier excursions into haunted, lonely folk music, albeit featuring some atmospheric drifts.
These cuts are followed by Nadler’s self-proclaimed ‘depression anthem’ Nothing Feels the Same. “It’s a real cheerful number, much like the rest of my repertoire”, she jokes. “Full of rainbows and happy faces.” The rest of the set promptly unfurls, consisting exclusively of tracks from her latest two albums – July and Strangers. Highlights include the ominous, drone-heavy rendition of Dead City Emily, which introduces something of a chill into the room, whilst Was it a Dream replaces the beautifully restrained pizzicato flourishes of the studio original with tasteful shoegaze sprawl. The stripped down instrumentation works in the music’s favour more often than I might have expected, too. The weeping strings of All the Colours of the Dark are replaced with understated dual guitar licks, whilst the unbridled solo of Hungry is the Ghost is nothing less than epic, making the darkened room feel, for a moment, like some vast, starless expanse.
The main detraction of the evening is Nadler’s reliance on her two most recent albums. Despite their excellence, the logical advantages of supporting them, and her admission that “they go together”, it’s somewhat disappointing to hear nothing at all from her other five superb studio albums. From the bleak ballads of her debut album to the wonderful warmth and diversity of her self-titled record, Nadler has plenty of stellar material which I had, admittedly, hoped that she might dip into at least once or twice throughout the evening’s proceedings.
In spite of this, as well as an exit abrupt enough to leave most of the room cheering for an encore which would never come, the evening finishes as strongly as it had started. The beauty of the final two songs is nothing less than stellar. The intertwined melodies of Dissolve slowly snake through the room, almost challenging anyone they encounter to remain unmoved, before the ethereal glory of final cut Firecrackers does nothing less than captivate. Marissa Nadler’s spectral aura has passed through Exeter for now, but I’d say her mark will remain for quite some time.