One of alternative (for better lack of a word) music’s biggest mysteries of the nineties, in my opinion, is golden-throated Bay Area singer/songwriter Paula Frazer and her band Tarnation not breaking out in a bigger, household name-type way. This crime ranks right up there with the total disinterest leveled at Belly’s King upon release, the critical scalding Chris Whitley took with Din of Ecstasy, and My Bloody Valentine’s vanishing act after Loveless. The woman has a voice that gives proof to the existence of God, and for some bizarre reason, only a handful of people (some San Franciscans and a few Brits, including the guys from Cornershop) know this.
The band’s 1995 4AD debut, the twangy, occasionally lo-fi, Gentle Creatures, was a tumbleweed-and-sunset velvet painting, the kind of record you listen to while driving through a ghost town with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on a flask of whiskey. There are moments, many heartbreaking moments on it, in which Frazer’s soaring voice rivals that of Patsy Cline’s. No kidding. An alt-country (for better lack of a word) masterpiece that deserved (but didn’t get) the kind of attention Son Volt’s “Trace” got during the same year.
Then came Mirador, released on Reprise Records in 1997. More accessible than its predecessor, playing like a dreamy, torch song-influenced soundtrack to an unreleased David Lynch film, it also met with little fanfare. I felt this album had huge VH-1 potential (that is not a cut). The music channel played a big part in bringing k.d. lang’s smart and true country sound to a more mainstream adult contemporary audience, and I thought Tarnation’s latest held appeal for this demographic as well. But no videos got made, the songs “An Awful Shade of Blue” and “Your Thoughts and Mine” became the hits that never were, and the band’s cult status solidified and then plateaued.
Things got quiet after that. The band filled opening slots for Nick Cave and Ann Magnuson, played shows at San Francisco’s Make-Out Room that were sweet but few and far between (made all the more torturous by the fact that they were performing new material with no new album on the horizon), and in general kept a pretty low profile.
Now it’s 2001, and the handful of San Franciscans and Brits (Cornershop included) are rejoicing, maybe even waltzing in the streets, for finally, new Paula product has arrived. Indoor Universe marks her debut sans the Tarnation moniker (although most of the band is still intact), and it’s a lovely affair, one that deftly illustrates the growth Frazer’s made both lyrically and musically. Gone are the words that conjure images of wide-open plains, cowboys, and Cormac McCarthy novels. This time it’s personal. The songs read like diary entries — loves that got away, loves that never loved back, loves that need serious TLC, loves that make you break down and cry, loves that look the other way when approached in the sunset. Cynics may snicker, but romantics will find much to swoon over. Frazer’s intonation on each number somehow manages to be knowing, bittersweet, and yearning all at the same time — a true testament to the wonders of her singing abilities, and the perfect combination of emotions for expressing the mixed-up state of being heartsick.
Musically speaking, the flare for drama is still there, this time painted in a more lush and melancholic shade than before, with sweeping string arrangements (“That You Know”), thunderous drumming (“Deep Was the Night”), and mournful trumpet soundings (“We Met by the Love-Lies-Bleeding”). There are also pure ’60s pop moments: “Not So Bad, But Not So Good” and “Everywhere” are the most catchy, playful songs Frazer and her band have made, suggesting a direction they could travel in that I never even thought of before — FM radio fixtures. (Ah, in another, better life . . . .)
But what always stands out the most, and what will always stand out the most, is Paula’s voice (no disregard to the band). It’s a rich, powerful, and disciplined instrument, one that Frazer never cheapens or exploits by lapsing into showy diva histrionics. When she sings, it hits you in the gut. A friend once remarked during a performance that “her voice could fill Carnegie Hall”. Hopefully, Indoor Universe will open doors to venues around the world for Paula Frazer to knock ’em dead in. (Visit Paula’s web site for audio clips, live show dates, and more. http://www.paulafrazer.com)