The glut of Americana/alt.country/No Depression acts these days makes for some interesting listening and some otherwise ordinary “hope I can get through this album once” records that leave no impression at all. There have been a few, but often the gems are the exception to the rule. Paula Frazier’s first record was sparse and extremely special. Now, with one quality-riddled album under her belt, Frazier is branching out slightly, but at the core of each song is her ability to conjure up images of singers like Patsy Cline, Emmylou Harris and Connie Francis with an ease and grace that comes so naturally to so few.
“Always On My Mind” (no, not the cover of the Willie Nelson tune) is a mid-tempo track that sounds like Neko Case if she was the understudy for Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies. The soft, subtle pedal steel of Tom Heyman gives way to a nice arrangement that isn’t quite world weary and jaded, but not slick or pre-packaged either. Another aspect to the song is the air of ‘60s pop in the vein of the Mamas and the Papas, or the Free Design hovering over the track as Frazier adds some “la la las” in the bridge.
Frazier’s haunting voice kicks off the Mexican feeling of “Watercolor Lines”, with its quasi-flamenco guitar touches that bring to mind the theme to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It’s earthy and quite ethereal at the same time, making for an eclectic yet inviting ditty. This momentum stalls however when you realize the intro is far too long, and the song slowly becomes unfocused, mainly because the violins and cello take it into a rather odd area. Think of a song that is more of a musical interlude than anything else and you get the gist of the tune, but unfortunately too late.
The album thankfully makes amends with a bare-bones swaying, waltz-like attempt on “Waiting For You” that is guitar, Frazier and piano in that order. It’s not quite as melancholy or sullen as Natalie Merchant or perhaps Sarah McLachan, but comes close to encapsulating that same adult contemporary feeling. Thankfully “It’s Not Ordinary” seems to have the best of both worlds: the roots country flavor blended with a pinch of radio-friendly pop complete with nice harmonies. If there’s one fault however, it might be how Frazier goes to the well one too many times with the chorus.
Judging by Frazier’s attempt on “Long Ago”, you get the impression she has set her mind on creating music that is perhaps a generation old. The strings and piano used on this number resembles something that might have been on an early James Bond soundtrack, haunting but alluring at the same time. She’s at her best on this track, carrying the song early and often while not reaching or stretching for certain notes.
The album’s highlight is the folksy amble that is “Leave the Sad Things Behind” that works on all fronts, as the vocals and music complement each other on a song that someone like Rosanne Cash or Emmylou Harris might consider covering. This is followed by a surprisingly infectious “No Other” which resembles Frazier listening to one too many albums by Raul Malo, the Mavericks or both, as horns and a guitar weaves in and out of the song.
Frazier might not have dazzled as many with this album as she did her first, but there are several quality tracks, especially the bouncy retro feeling all over “Funny Things” with its cheesy organ and sing-along harmonies. Concluding with the dusty, precious “Where Did Time Go”, Frazier has made a strong album that could be a hint at a slightly different direction.