My introduction to the music of San Francisco-based singer-songwriter Paula Frazer started with her breakthrough second album, 1995's Gentle Creatures (4AD), released under the band name Tarnation. I remember being blown away after listening to the very first track - the transistor-radio sounding "Game of Broken Hearts", which featured nothing but Paula's lonesome, melancholic vocals lilting over a strummed guitar. Evoking nuances of Patsy Cline and the Old West, this was probably my first intro to the musical genre of alt-country. I was immediately hooked. Over the years that followed, Paula released several additional albums under the band names 'Tarnation' and 'Paula Frazer and Tarnation', as well as a string of impressive solo albums under her own name. While the artist/band names may have varied over the years, the one constant is Paula's brilliant songwriting and trademark vocal style, contributing to the unique and immediately identifiable sound across all her recordings.
It's been ten ten years since Paula has released an album (the last being 2007's Now It's Time (Birdman Records)), but the musical void has now been filled with the recent release of What Is and Was (New High Recordings), a Paula Frazer and Tarnation album that's been in the making for the past five years. Besides Paula, the current band lineup features fellow musicians Jacob Aranda (guitar, vocals), Sam Berman (drums), and David Cuetter (bass, pedal steel). The album was produced by Nigel Pavao, Desmond Shea and Paula, and mixed by Alex Oropeza.
When I think about Paula's music, my mind drifts off to images of tumbleweeds, deserts, cowboys, evenings on the porch, and the Southwestern 'big sky.' The overall sound of the music falls somewhere between Western, Americana, and alternative country with hints of 60's folk and 70's classic country - refreshing and honest music. Thinking back to my childhood, this brings to mind memories of classic country tunes beaming from the AM radio next to the kitchen table. And then there's that voice - bittersweet, melodic and smooth, with warm bends, a bit of twang, and just the right amount of echo/reverb. With a broad vocal range, Paula effortlessly soars to the upper registers, with her signature operatic, soft-yodeling "aaaahh's." When you hear that voice, you know it's Paula.
While the band composition has changed over the past ten years, What Is and Was seamlessly picks up where 1997's Mirador (4AD) left off. The stunning title track ("What Is and Was") is the album's first unofficial single release - a standout track that's introduced by Paula's "aaahhh" vocals, which immediately draw the listener in. The lovely, spacious-sounding "Golden" is a bit reminiscent of early 70's John Denver. "In Some Time" was initially released on the 2014 In Some Time EP, but now features all current band members in this newly recorded version. One of my favorite tracks is the 60's/country-influenced "To the Ocean", which also features a nicely-placed flute accompaniment.
PAULA FRAZER AND TARNATION "To The Ocean" (Music Video)
The psychedelic, 60's-sounding "Western Star" could very well be the perfect soundtrack for night drives through the desert, with its bending, twangy, western-sounding guitars. You can really feel the warmth of the soft, country-influenced "North Wind," with its delicate touch of sweet violins. "People Say" is beautiful, almost sounding like it could have come right off Gentle Creatures. "Find My Heart" closes out What Is and Was - the perfect ending to this outstanding album, with its lonesome vibe, guitar and Paula's echoing voice.
What Is and Was is currently available in digital format and translucent red-colored vinyl with gatefold cover, with a forthcoming CD version (that includes a bonus track).