[28 February 2007]
After a pair of successful solo albums, alt-country heroine Paula Frazer has resuscitated the moniker Tarnation with the release of Now It’s Time. But why is now the time? One guess is that the two other albums which bear that name, 1995’s Gentle Creatures and 1997’s Mirador, have refused to fade into that dark night of cultural memory, steeping in the collective consciousness of No Depression readers and Cormac McCarthy devotees as benchmarks of all that is authentic, true, and twangy. Frazer’s haunted, high-lonesome songs still sound as if sprung from the dust and carried forth by tumbleweed after a generation of whiskey-drinkin’ and Wild West font-lovin’ hacks have long since moseyed to that old saloon in the discount bin. So what better time than now than to remind the world that Frazer hasn’t hung it up, and that Now It’s Time, while not exactly the same sound, is still helmed by the same talent.
As with all of Frazer’s records, it’s her voice that rightfully takes center stage. The tone she produces is warm, honeyed, and sounds completely effortless as it flows over and through each of the album’s eleven songs. It’s also, often in the same moments, a number of contradictions: tough yet vulnerable, desperate yet playful. One thing Frazer’s voice cannot be described as however, is indifferent. Passion rules both her singing and her songwriting. On the opener, “August’s Song”, her voice gently flutters and soars, her octave leaping intrinsic to both the atmosphere and emotion of the tune. The album is said vaguely to have been inspired “by events that happened during one summer in San Francisco”, which the songs elaborate as lost love. Frazer’s lyrics direct in the classic style of both country and punk, no over-intellectualizing the hurt, no songs about Sartre’s favorite toothbrush as metaphor for heartbreak or some such. Rather, the jaunty upright-piano based “Bitter Rose” asks, “If I had the words / Could I stay / In the morning of your heart?” and declares “My love is deeper than the deep blue sea.” It won’t have you running to your encycl… I mean Wikipedia, but it’s intent is clearly in the tradition of tear-jerking country ballads as opposed to reinventing the wheel.
Where “Big O Motel”, from Gentle Creatures, was an expert piece of imaginative, character-based songwriting, every song here is instead intensely personal. Two sides of one coin, both approaches serve Frazer well, especially since her melodies, and the band performing them, make each song ring with equal conviction. The only real head-scratcher is “Nowhere”, which despite gorgeous, ethereal harmonies, can’t pull itself away from sounding awfully like R.E.M.’s “Drive”. It’s also the darkest, most labored sounding tune on the record, and though the theme of the album is heartbreak, Now It’s Time is relatively brisk and upbeat. “I’ll Never Know” trips lightly and jangly, swept over by cool currents of pedal steel; the campfire-strummed, defeated “Sleeping Dreams” keeps its head up with a bright melody that balances lines like “Memories are killin’ me / Happy thoughts that were mine / Honesty goes nowhere / But left further behind.”
One last note about Frazer’s voice: it sounds reinvigorated on Now It’s Time, more youthful even than on the songs that brought her national attention over ten years ago. Perhaps writing Now It’s Time was a cathartic experience that led to the confident, unburdened sound of its recording. “All the Time” closes the album on a particularly high note, literally and figuratively. Over an bouncing drumbeat, the soul-searching, regret, and hurt of songs prior leads to a bit of hope, “Take away the sadness … / Keep some good with the bad / I can see I’m in your heart again / And we begin just like we’re strangers.” The relief of the conclusion doesn’t erase the darker journey which preceded it, but cuts Frazer’s return with just enough sunlight to keep things interesting, and promising.