Music : Nina Violet's new CD startles and hypnotizes
Martha's Vineyard Times File Photo
Nina Violet's new CD was welcomed home in style on Saturday night, Dec. 10, at a cozy musical get-together in the Oak Bluffs Arts District. Outside the air was frosty, but concertgoers indoors enjoyed hot cocoa and treats in a warm, inviting room hung with colored lights and posters from past concerts. Nina Violet grew up here, made her earliest recordings here, and now this building was officially celebrating her third album of all-original music.
Four and a half years in the making, "We'll Be Alright" is a collection of songs written and distilled by Nina during concert tours around the country and in Europe, and filtered through endless jam sessions with sisters and childhood friends for whom music was a blood sport. The process of incubation paid off, because every track here is a polished gem.
Impeccably recorded by master engineer Matthew Cullen, and exquisitely mixed, "We'll Be Alright" puts Nina's powerful yet vulnerable voice front and center. A perverse perfectionist, she has learned every crack and burr in her wide range and plays each imperfection like an instrument. It's a joy to hear these clear, seasoned vocals that glow with the beauty of a life-weathered scar.
The tunes and harmonies are so intoxicating that it's hard at first to latch onto the lyrics, which deserve to be admired for their economy and sheer surprise. Behind its dreamy, lilting waltz, "Sewing Song" is nothing more (and nothing less) than a lovely, spare, adjective-free description of how to use a sewing machine:
find the end on the spool
and pull and it spins
and thread through the arm
and under the spring
and up round the hook
and down to the dog
and into the catch
and now through the eye
now take hold the wheel
and lift up the foot
put two sides together
and follow the edge
Is this music or found poetry? And who uses words like "dovelings" and "thrumming," anyway? Only a songwriter defiantly confident in her eclectic upbringing, who has reconciled her influences and forged a voice all her own.
The album is a who's-who of contemporary young Island musicians: Marciana Jones, Adam Howell, Angel Russell, Matthew Cullen, and Swiss drummer Mathius Kunzli. They play a potpourri of instruments including omnichord, keyboards, guitar, banjo, cavaquinho, and trumpet. Nina herself plays all the bowed-string instruments.
Saturday's celebration concert was mainly a thank-you for dozens of friends and fans who had raised nearly $2,000 to help defray production costs for the album. The event was held where the recording took place: at The Pit Stop, on Dukes County Avenue in Oak Bluffs. But the evening marked what may be the beginning of a new Vineyard venue for songwriters and musicians whose work commands more attention than can be found in a rowdy bar.
Don Muckerheide's building has had many identities including mechanic's garage, nightclub, and film house. In its latest incarnation as a performance space, it seats 90 people and has the same kind of cozy, home-grown atmosphere as the dear, departed Che's Lounge. There is some hope that this wonderful location in a year-round neighborhood may become a venue for regular live music performances.
Nina's generation of young Vineyarders grew up in a rich culture of songwriting, and the amount of free-floating talent in the room on Saturday could have lit up the Island. Nina's sisters Marciana Jones and May May Oskan each played a set of their own music, accompanied by vocalist Bridget Conlon, keyboardist Adam Lipsky, and drummer Zack Sawmiller. Calling themselves the Graveyard Cats, Ms. Oskan and guitarist/singer Ezra Lowrey performed a set of original, tightly harmonized, jazz-inflected songs. The evening closed with a set by Willy Mason, whose band members included bassist Shawn "Bones" Barber and resonator guitarist Stu Gardner (both of Goodnight Louise fame), and harmonica player Geordie Gude. Gregg Harcourt provided clean, crisp sound for the evening.
The entire concert felt like a family affair, not just because it reunited a legendary set of musical sisters, not just because it took a village to raise this CD, but because everybody was at home in everybody else's songs. Willy played electric bass for Nina's set, Nina added her viola to Willy's, and Marciana played a closetful of instruments and lent universal vocal backup. It was clearly a community that thrives on cross-pollination, gently nurtured by Nina's mom, guitar/voice/piano teacher and guitarist extraordinaire Michele Jones.
"We'll Be Alright" is for sale at aboveground records and can be downloaded online at http://ninaviolet.bandcamp.com/album/well-be-alright.
Dan Waters is a writer and musician who lives in West Tisbury.