Born in Bermuda, educated at the Rhode Island School of Design and career-launched in London, Heather Nova (née Frith, the name under which her first recording-later reissued as The First Release-was first released) conjures up powerful atmospheres in her baroque musical dramas. Throwing her strong, wavery voice into thick, swelling clouds of artful guitar-and-cello rock, Nova marries Patti Smith’s thrusting rhythmic aggression with breathless swoons of fluttering expressiveness (Kate Bush on spanish fly) in a mannered but robust full-body press of stirring melodies and sensual obsessions. That she exhibits an obnoxiously coy Beavis and Butt-head idea of lyrical sexuality (“She said ‘come’ and ‘cock’ and ‘go down’ and ‘touch myself,’ heh-heh, heh-heh”) is a disappointment given the self-possession and intrinsic tug of her work.
The singer/guitarist/songwriter made her recording debut in 1990 with These Walls, a four-song UK 12-inch under her real name; as Heather Nova, she returned several years later with Spirit in You and her first album, Glow Stars, which reprises all four of Spirit‘s tunes.
The live-in-London Blow — released initially as a six-song EP and then expanded with three more from a different (but, if the audible clap-o-meter is an accurate gauge, no better attended) gig, Blow presents Nova and her quartet as a formidable musical force, giving her originals vivid, expansive band arrangements of a sort unheard since the mid-’70s glory days of Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel. Possessing an endless array of engaging vocal gimmicks (including a bunch from Björk), Nova blows each song into an intricate epic, caressing verses like a folkie and attacking choruses with the unbridled enthusiasm of a musical Jackson Pollock. “Maybe an Angel,” “Sugar,” “Doubled Up” and “Light Years” — none of which are on Glow Stars and all of which were recorded for Nova’s American studio debut — receive gloriously over-the-top renditions full of winding instrumental inventions and delirious vocals.
Live From the Milky Way documents a slightly bigger-sounding Amsterdam club date: simpler, more electrifying versions of three Blow songs and three quieter new numbers, one of which (“Verona”) is unfortunately archetypal of lyrics that make her out to be a demurely pretentious college-poet pornographer: “It gets inside you like the sun/It makes you wet just like the rain/It makes you sound so sentimental/It’s a lovely kind of pain.”
In that pursuit, Nova gets Oyster, her first American studio album, off to a dismally calculated start with “Walk This World,” the point of which appears to be the phone sex sleaze of its chorus tag: “I want you to come…[pregnant pause]…walk this world with me.” Lines like “I’m not touched but I’m aching to be” hammer home the do-me theme; “And I’m sucked in by the wonder and I’m fucked up by the lies” provides the obligatory four-letter thrill. Nova doesn’t have room on her plate for much besides thinking about nookie (and watery geography — this island girl takes to rivers and oceans the way Bruce Springsteen hits the nighttime highways), but Oyster finds far more elegant ways to slouch around the bedroom. “Blue Black” alludes to a variety of sexual transgressions (“You made me a victim…I gave it away, whore for a day…and was it familiar when you touched my sister”). “Heal” offers a general view of water’s restorative inspiration, but the metaphysical romantic metaphor of the power ballad “Maybe an Angel” (which could very well lead to an inadvertent case of mistaken identity with Alanis Morissette) hits harder than either.