REVIEW: Nat Baldwin – ‘In The Hollows’

In The Hollows Nat Baldwin

Artist: Nat Baldwin
Album: In The Hollows
Genre: Chamber Pop
Label: Western Vinyl

Nat Baldwin is a careful man. It’s difficult to imagine the Dirty Projectors bassist being anything but after growing up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, surrounded by trees and the type of community that rids politeness of stiff formalities. He forgoes beer onstage for water from his Nalgene. He pauses between sentences when speaking. He’s aware of the seconds on his watch but never feels the pressure of its ticks. All of that carefulness, trivial as it seems, gets in the way on his fifth full-length release, In The Hollows.

When prepping for the album, Baldwin confessed he was hoping for a more cohesive body of work. Previously 2011’s People Changes EP showed him as a musician ready to step into oil-spilled waters, sharing songs that were haunting and unnerving but, overall, whole. The tubing of his brain opened up for exhibit, a tousled stretch that allowed him to revamp Arthur Russel’s “A Little Lost” as an ode from one reserved cellist to another and display sporadic fiddling on his front lawn in the yard sale that is “Weights.” They may have jumped, but Baldwin’s previous releases had a bravery to them wary enough to avoid entering territory too unfamiliar.

Joined by percussionist Otto Hauser (Vetiver, Espers, Lia Ices) and violinists Rob Moose (Bon Iver, The National, Antony and the Johnsons) and Clarice Jenson, the structure on In The Hollows has new pillars popping up–mainly chamber pop strings and jazz drumming–that allow his songs to be cloaked in a sheer sheet of balminess.

Opening track “Wasted” begins how one would awake when wasted in any definition of the word. There’s a slow fluttering of its eyelids, looking around the room, taking in what’s nearby before picking up its feet, one after the other, placing them on the floor, and finding a sense of balance before beginning to walk. Baldwin’s loose plucking towards the end of the song, after his bow sweeps curiously, bodes well for the jutted “Knockout” and “The End of the Night,” both of which seem to have taken notes from his time spent studying free jazz under Anthony Brazton.

Baldwin’s best is, ironically, when he’s spiraling downwards. Haunted by age, much of his time addresses his proximity to his 40s and sections of life left untouched. His distinct warble that strolls into falsetto sounds pained, differentiating it from David Longstreth’s, whose often glistens with a content wonder.

For such inviting pieces, he’s calmly stringing the listener along with lyrics that snuggle with isolation, foreboding decay, and the self-destructive nature of the mundane. Baldwin is, after all, careful. “We’re all fucked, crucified by truth. If I got nothing else from this trip, I at least got this, a kindred spirit,” he sings on “Bored to Death.” Even while his music is flustered and rushing, his face is that of peace, the look of a man ready to be lowered into a wooden casket to rest. That cautious drive keeps him from making the cohesive album he hoped for (although the Judee Sill and Bill Callahan influences are there in his warmth and poisoned words). On paper the notes are aligned, but on the record they struggle to move despite their instructions. The passion is too busy hiding from his worries to make a presence.

Don’t overlook Baldwin. He’s a magnificent composer. Live his material hits with rough scrapes and a trenchant mood. The weight of the bow goes unnoted on In The Hollows, though, which is what something this dark needs. It’s unfortunate he’s too detached to make the listener come alive with his inner swirling of experimental and classical tendencies, but what we’re left with is still a well-constructed work. Nat Baldwin isn’t trying to fill the void, but he’s careful while exploring it and, unfortunately, that keeps him from going far enough into the darkness to let instinct be his guide.

SCORE: 6.8/10
Review written by: Nina Corcoran (follow her on Twitter)

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