Patron saints die. In fact, it might even be considered a prerequisite. Obscurity can also be a defining characteristic. Perhaps most defining, however, is their ability to carry the weight of something greater than themselves. A lifetime before American Pie became the name of a film, and decades before Don McLean’s opus became the calling card for indulgent frat party, beer-swilling sing-alongs, it was an honest (if not bloated) investigation into what the aftermath following the loss of a patron saint of music. The city of Dallas, Texas, and the members of its popular band Sorta are now forced to investigate a similar question.
Those of us who listen to, love, and write about music often have to consider what it is that makes music greater than the sum of its notes and lyrics. For many, it seems that the quality of a record is in direct correlation to its honesty. When we hear a song and the emotion of it rings true, most of us think of it as a paramount accomplishment. The release of Sorta’s eponymous album, their fifth, asks us to consider what it means if that honesty is the acknowledgment that you just can’t do it anymore. Bass player and vocalist Danny Balis describes the process of finishing the latest and final Sorta record, “It was such a surreal experience nothing really stands out. We were coasting and just trying to get it done. I was pretty detached from the whole thing after Carter died”.
Carter Albrecht, Photo by Mike Fuentes
The Carter he refers to is guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist and Dallas musical ambassador, Carter Albrecht. On September 3, 2007, during the making of Sorta’s record, Carter was shot outside the home of his girlfriend, Ryan. There have been varying reports of the circumstances that night. This much is known: Carter and his girlfriend returned from an evening out. After taking the anti-smoking pill Chantix, Carter became incoherent and violent. He struck his girlfriend and she fled the house. Moments later, after leaving the home himself, Carter was shot attempting to enter the home of a neighbor. The shot was intended to be a warning blast, but, because of Carter’s height, it was fatal. As news broke nationally, the announcement that a member of Edie Brickell’s band had died failed to resonate with many, who thought of Albrecht as a solo artist, the peaceful front man of Sparrows, and/or member of Sorta. By day’s end, however, all of Dallas’s musical community was mourning the loss of one of the scene’s favorite sons. Once the funeral was over, the charity concert held, and most questions answered, one remained for Carter’s former band mates: What should be done with Sorta and the record that they had nearly finished?
Sorta, and its many members, had long been a beloved part of Dallas’s musical landscape. Originated by Danny Balis and Trey Johnson, Albrecht found his way into the band after seeing them perform at the Barely House. The three were a part of an evolving scene that centered around the local tavern and musical venue. Albrecht’s presence in Dallas music was already ubiquitous. Ward Williams, a college friend and band mate said, “I saw Carter playing in a Grateful Dead cover band at Club Dada,” nearly a decade ago. Even then his fingers were in everything musical in Dallas. Salim Nourallah—musician, producer, and Dallas resident—agreed, “Carter played on just about every record I ever did.” At the time that Albrecht joined Sorta, he was still writing and performing as Sparrows and playing keys for Edie Brickell’s New Bohemians. After Albrecht came into the fold, Trey Carmichael came on-board to play drums. As the instrumentation became more complex, the need for another instrumentalist became evident. Williams, Carter’s close friend and member of Sparrows, was added on guitar and lap and pedal steel guitar.
The band released its first record, Laugh Out Loud, in 2002. It received great reviews and garnered wide support from the Dallas music community. Understanding the enormity of that local support requires some understanding of the Dallas music scene. Some might say that Dallas has a chip on its shoulder about music. Nourallah describes it as a “Rodney Dangerfield” complex, saying that musicians in Dallas battle for “art in a city of commerce.” That chip may not be out of place. After all, Austin gets so much attention it’s hard not to be overshadowed. Thanks to massive local support, Austin has emerged as the epicenter of music in the United States. Even little Denton has become a Mecca of sorts for various music fans. Dallas, on the other hand, has had seemingly little to cheer about in local music. Many of the venues once packed in Deep Ellum are gone. Homegrown heroes the Old 97’s have chosen local gigs more carefully since the beating of a fan at the Gypsy Tea Room, a local venue. Trees closed. Jeroboam was invisible. The original Barley House was forced to move. Simply put, Dallas became a tough place to be a musician. In fact, Nourallah refuses to speak of the scene in Dallas in present terms, offering that when the Barley House changed locations “the city of Dallas won and the Barley House lost. Music lost.”
Photo by Bill Ellison
Despite all of the changes on the Dallas music scene, Sorta became a constant. Balis was a radio personality and fronted the King Bucks. Albrecht was writing and recording, as well as playing with Trey and others at the Barley. The release of Little Bay in 2004 and Strange and Sad But True in 2006 were also met with local (and occasionally national) attention. Sorta were, in many ways, the kings of Dallas. The addition of the city’s highly regarded Chris Holt in 2006 only solidified that role, though inroads outside of Dallas were still difficult to capitalize on. The lack of infrastructure and support kept Sorta regional. Said Ward Williams, “Being in Dallas, you can be naïve. You tend to think ‘Oh, we can do this on our own,’ so we never had any of those pieces that you need in place. “
That status was not necessarily a source of frustration with everyone. With many band members having other gigs and families, most of Sorta seemed content to put out records and tour regionally. There wasn’t disinterest in the national stage, but rather a sense of contentment to make great music regardless of the level of commercial success it brought. Albrecht, however, seemed driven to improve Dallas’s standing in the world of music. Williams said, “I always thought Carter had this cross to bear; like he was going to make Dallas into the next Seattle or something.” Nourallah offered a similar take saying, “He just loved his friends and we were lucky enough to live where he did.” Not in dispute was Albrecht’s position in the Dallas scene. He was a constant at the Barley House, a vocal supporter of anyone willing to take its stage, and the most versatile and talented musician in town. He was, by all accounts, the patron saint of Dallas music. According to many, that single shot fired in the early morning of September 3, 2007, not only killed the patron saint, it took much of Dallas music went with him. Unfinished, among so many other things, were Albrecht’s solo record and the record that he and his friends in Sorta had been working on. Shortly after his death, the remaining members of Sorta went back to work to finish the album, in shock and deflated. In fact, most of Dallas’s musicians seem to be in shock still. The death of such a visible and charismatic force can have any number effects. Nourallah thinks that Albrecht’s death “knocked the life out of Dallas music.” While it may be too early to tell if that’s truly the case, one survivor from the loss of Carter Albrecht is Sorta’s finest record to date.
Now scheduled for an October release, Sorta’s opening track, “Make a Wish”, would be right at home on a Dire Straits record. The mix allows Albrecht’s keyboard performance to stand front and center, while the bluesy guitar work provided by Christ Holt is flawless. Holt described the process of trading instruments with Albrecht, saying “Carter played keys and/or guitar on every song on the album…whatever he played guitar on, I played keys, and vice versa. We were very fortunate that he was able to nail down his parts live. Some of them might not have been what he wanted to be considered final takes, but his playing was always inspired. His scratch takes were better than most peoples’ best.”
“Grown Man” has a keyboard presence that is reminiscent of the Band. This is Sorta at its most sorrowful. When Trey Johnson sings the chorus, Albrecht’s piano takes commands attention so seamlessly that it’s hard to imagine the vocalist is not the one playing. Johnson’s vocal performance is enough to make you eager with anticipation over his upcoming solo record. He finds a place somewhere between the late Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne that manages to be entirely his own. On some tracks, his tone is pure enough to be in the Farrar family.
Also not lost on this record is Sorta’s sense of humor. Examples include the song title “Bjorn Yesterday” and the sarcasm of the reproach in “Fools Gold”, when Johnson does his best David Johansson, barking, “Your heart was in it / You were just lacking direction”. It can also be found on “Poor Little Child”, the country track. With a shuffle rhythm provided by bass and drums, and a honky-tonk guitar sound, it feels right at home with lyrics like “Living on credit and getting it cheap”. Johnson sings tongue and cheek, “I have a major breakdown and a minor in Greek”. In many ways, it represents the sides of Dallas that Sorta have come to know—the students filling the weekend clubs, the cowboys not sure what happened to their city. It is the collision between art and commerce that Salim Nourallah mourns. Sorta seems to have found the irony.
Despite the present humor, this record still reaches emotional honesty in “Afraid of the Dark” and “Always”. The latter, a love song that would not have been out of place on a Sparrows record, has some of the most foreboding guitar work on the record, all the while offering a lyric of hope. While singing optimistically, “Don’t be afraid”, the feel remains ominous. Similarly, it’s too easy and maybe a little cheap to put final song “Afraid of the Dark” in the context of Albrecht’s life and death. It was, after all, written, recorded, and tracked before he was killed. Nonetheless, it is impossible to listen to Sorta without hearing ghosts. And nowhere is that more prevalent than the record’s closing song. Possibly a father’s song to his son, he lectures not to be afraid of the dark. In a quieter moment, he reminds himself of the same. The album closes with the refrain “Oh it’s over”, and, according to just about everyone you ask, it is.
If the true test of art lies in its honesty, then the men of Sorta are indeed artists. Without the prologue of Albrecht’s tragic loss, the awareness of the record being Sorta’s curtain call, or any other context, this record is still a beautiful testament to the talent of some of Dallas’s most prized musicians. If indeed it is over, it has ended on the perfect note.
Rock and roll recovered from the day the music died. The lives of those lost talents found their way into Elvis’s hips, Levon’s drumming, and Townsend’s windmill. Carter Albrecht’s impact will live on, too. His solo record will be released in 2009 (which Balis describes as the best record any Dallas musician has ever made), and forthcoming projects include solo records by Danny Balis and Trey Johnson, as well as session work from Ward Williams and Chris Holt’s upcoming follow-up to Wishful Sinking, a Slack record. With its patron saint now gone, what will become of Dallas’s music scene remains in question. Carter Albrecht’s place in its under-appreciated past is not.
Photo by Hal Samples
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