When I threw up my shot-in-the-dark ad a few days back, I wasn't expecting to hear from so many polished, professional-level artists as I did. I'm excited that I'm getting to hear finished products in addition to rough initial recordings. I'm fascinated by every element of the process of music-making, from the first solo sketch to the career-spanning 25-year anthology. Songwriter Nano Whitman has roots on the East Coast but has called Austin home for five years now; his self-titled record features contributions from some scene heavyweights including former Spoon-man Joshua Zarbo and the electrifying jazz singer Kat Edmondson.
It's not an accident or a coincidence that talented musicians (and producers) want to work with Whitman; he's got the gift. As a singer, lyricist, and melody composer, his skills are not inconsiderable, but it's his finely-honed ear for making his weak points in each area into strengths that sets him apart from the rabble. Take the production of "Jokers & Pros," the EP's most upbeat track. Two different guitar parts are present, reggae offbeats in one stereo channel and some more blues-oriented playing in the other, but neither is turned up to eleven. Whitman has a lived-in baritone voice that allows him to best express himself when he's singing at a conversational, personal volume, and all of his debut's songs feature arrangements that only force him to raise his voice to compete with the volume of the guitars when the song's natural development requires it. When Whitman raises to a rasp to deliver the song's signature line: "You can beat this dead horse all you want, see just how far it goes," the brief moment of anger makes the harmonies that arrive right after all so much the sweeter.
Although the songs are not light on instrumentation, with warm analog keyboard tones swirling throughout, there's an awareness of what basic factors need to be heard most clearly. Zarbo's bass takes a central role, its full and clear sound allowing the guitars to be used in a more restrained and creative manner. Unusual harmonies are one of Whitman's biggest calling cards; the use of a ghostly, minor-feel chorale part on "Just to Kiss You" undercuts the song's hopeful theme and makes the listener think harder about the musician's intentions.
He has a similar light-and-shade approach to his lyrics. Although "Just to Kiss You" begins on a very simple, almost trite sentiment, as Whitman's words continue his attempts to remain optimistic and hopeful reflect the artist's personal struggle. Whitman isn't writing a love song based on all the other love songs he's heard in his life, he's writing from his own life, as the often very specific references to people and events suggest. "28" has couplets so direct and sincere that they're almost uncomfortable ("my sister doesn't even have a name"), only Whitman balances himself out with a melody and rhyme scheme so plain it's almost childlike. There's absolutely nothing wrong with simplicity employed for an intelligent and original reason, and that's what Nano has nailed down here.
And then sometimes you've got to mix some fire in with all the icy cool: That's where Edmondson comes in, her powerful instrument giving a reprise of "Just to Kiss You" a completely different feel. While Nano seems resigned to wait for his lover to come around on her own time, Kat is going to grab you by the lapels and make you love her. The result is a really wonderful collaboration that elevates both artists; read more about it here. I was reminded favorably of Elvis Costello's recent work with Lucinda Williams. You can see Nano out on the boards at Botticelli's Monday the 28th and at the Irie Bean Coffee Bar Tuesday, October 6th.
Also, Nano was kind enough to give me a tip on his favorite locals, a quartet called Wiretree, check 'em out.