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Wednesday, March 21, 2007 01:21 pm

In the key of heartbreak

Tarnation! Now itÂ’s time for Paula Frazer

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Paula Frazer and Tarnation Now It’s Time (Birdman)
Untitled Document It’s somewhat misleading to say that Now It’s Time represents the return of Tarnation, the seminal Western-noir band that Paula Frazer fronted in the 1990s. Tarnation was never really a band so much as a concept, with Frazer the lineup’s only constant. Moreover, even though the San Francisco-based singer/songwriter has been recording under her own name since 2001, the concept is much the same: She still favors melancholy country-based ballads accented by touches of ’60s psych-rock, and she’s still got That Voice, a celestial mezzo-soprano so inhumanly fine that it’s a wonder no one has founded a religion around it. At the very least, releasing an album as Paula Frazer and Tarnation is redundant, given that the two entities are, and always have been, synonymous. Most likely, the new and improved nameplate was simply a marketing decision, in which case who could blame her? During her heyday on the once-great 4AD label, the Georgia-bred preacher’s daughter was Americana’s answer to that other enigmatic 4AD diva, the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser. Although Rolling Stone deemed Gentle Creatures, the first Tarnation full-length, one of the 25 classic alt-country records of all time, Frazer hasn’t gotten a lot of love in subsequent years, which is a great injustice, considering the hype that’s lavished on her less gifted peers. Her last solo album, 2005’s Leave the Sad Things Behind, was an exquisite mixture of ’60s-steeped chamber pop, backwoods country, and spaghetti-Western melodrama; pitched somewhere between Love, Dolly Parton, and Ennio Morricone, it staked out a territory all its own — and, alas, attracted few tourists. Practically speaking, resurrecting the Tarnation brand probably won’t put an end to Frazer’s undeserved obscurity, but at this point in her career, it seems worth a shot. Now It’s Time isn’t a huge departure from Sad Things, but that’s hardly a flaw. Like its predecessor, Time is about (duh!) time and its corresponding sorrows, the painful junctures at which presence and absence collide. Frazer specializes in a kind of sanguine fatalism: Nothing survives time’s terrible embrace — not desire, not memory — but there’s comfort in this impermanence because it means an end to suffering, too. As she sings on “Another Day,” the CD’s most optimistic track, “You turned away from those things that you once longed for/It’s another day; you can’t go back because now it’s gone.” Such stoicism seems a bit jarring in context — the thudding drums, snapping cymbals, and springy piano give the song a Spectorish girl-group vibe — but this juxtaposition frames the perpetual tension between pleasure and pain, love and loss. Her voice, with its feathery falsetto and wild-mercury runs, is so inexorably gorgeous that it almost detracts from her compositional skills; such an instrument, one suspects, could make a radio jingle seem sublime. But Frazer is an able songwriter, and it’s a testament to her melodic gifts that the album’s leisurely pace and relatively consistent instrumentation seldom seem monotonous. Most of the songs on Time are slow-to-midtempo ballads in the key of heartbreak, a formula that she has more or less perfected over the years. The opening elegy, “August’s Song,” bears a passing resemblance to the theme to The Waltons, but it’s so beautiful, in all of its luminous variations, that you’ll forget all about John Boy and the rest by the time the first verse is over. Other standouts include the string-speckled psych reverie “First Sign”; the pedal-steel-swept lullaby “Sleeping Dreams,” and “Pretend,” a fitting vehicle for her flutelike coloratura. Throughout the album’s 11 tracks, Frazer’s many talents are in full flower. Now it’s time for people to notice again.
Contact René Spencer Saller at rssaller@core.com
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