On her fourth solo album, Mental Picture, Sarah Bethe Nelson continues to balance her introspective lyrics with melodies that sound like you’ve heard them all your life. She’s still a rocker, but the feel here is a bit more restrained than on previous efforts.
She recorded and produced the music in a studio she set up in her living room, with the help of her longtime collaborator, Rusty Miller. “I love all the minutiae of making music and records,” Nelson said. “Recording at home meant I was able to take longer to get the sound I wanted. I didn’t have the constraints of time I’d have in a studio.
“I didn’t have to make quick decisions about the arrangements. Since I was making music with my friends Rusty and Doug (Hilsinger), we could try out all the ideas we had and expand our musical vision. There was a lot of exploring and experimenting with sounds and arrangements. It was an enjoyable thing we could do, in a time that was so dark and scary. We had no place to be, no structure, and my job was on hold. Everything was closed for 15 months. There was a lot of time spent being alone, and imagining how things were doing in the outside world. That led to writing the song ‘Mental Picture,’ which became the title of the album.
“I got to thinking how you have mental pictures in your imagination. I began wondering if we think in words, or images or some combination. Does the way we think affect our perception? As I was writing, I connected to the ideas in that song in a lot of ways.
“Being inside, with limited options, forces you to find things you might not otherwise discover. Some of it was just dumping out boxes of percussion instruments to find the sounds we liked.”
The songs on Nelson’s previous efforts had a burnished rock’n’roll edge. Mental Picture is more intimate, but the music is expansive, with ambient touches and unexpected instrumental flourishes. “Can’t Catch A Break” opens with an insistent bass pulse, hand claps and shimmering electric guitar chords. Nelson sighs out a lyric that describes the contradictions of ordinary life with wry humor, leading up to an unforgettable chorus. She could be singing about the discontent generated by the lockdown, but it has a more universal, playful feel. “It’s not specifically about COVID,” Nelson said, ”but it was written during the pandemic, so that informs it, I’m sure. There are hints of anger and anxiety in a lot of my songs, but I like to keep the rage subtle and wrap it up in something nice.”
Sparse electric guitar notes, syncopated hand claps and chiming notes that sound like a cross between a xylophone and the tinkling of wind chimes introduce Nelson’s quiet vocal on “Night Birds.” She describes a woman balanced on the edge of anticipation and resignation, hoping for better times, as she tells us how she stays up late to hide from her dreams. “Better Off Dead” is a mid-tempo rocker, with a solid backbeat and brittle, treble heavy electric guitars occupying a vast sonic space. Nelson’s tender vocal sits in the eye of a storm, calmly observing the chaos around her. Every song is full of lyrical and musical surprises that will have you hitting the replay button over and over.
As local quarantine restrictions begin to ease, Nelson is eyeing the opportunities for live shows again. “I’ve been dipping a toe back in and have a few things coming up in southern California. Everything was closed for over a year and a half and I was hesitant to book things I’d have to cancel. We did a filmed performance during lockdown, but didn’t play any shows for the whole time. Clubs opened and then shut back down. That’s a situation I’ve never had to contemplate before. I didn’t feel good asking people to come to a show, then canceling it at the last minute. At this point, we’re trying to be inventive and regain some momentum. It’s been a struggle, but it didn’t keep me from being creative and writing songs.
“I like singing with a band, but Rusty and I do duo shows as well. It’s more stripped with the two of us, but he can play bass drum and high hat with his feet, while he plays guitar and sings, so it’s fullish for a duo. It’s kinda like having an actual backup band with me. The heartbeat of the kick drum fills the sound out nicely.”
Sara Bethe Nelson will be doing a record release show on Wednesday, Aug. 31, at Vesuvio Café, 255 Columbus Ave.,San Francisco. 415-362-3370. vesuvio.com