Having the voice of an angel seems to be a darned good start for a recording artist, but of course it’s a question of what you do with it. Far too many would-be sirens have mired themselves in overproduced tripe or empty “ethereal” atmosphere. Take Dido, f’rinstance, whose sweet, vaguely soulful “ThankYou” was belatedly whipped into a hit by sheer happenstance, when Eminem based a much bigger hit around its sampled chorus. Her dulcet, breathy vocalizing is lovely–like Sinéad O’Connor without the edge–but it’s ill served by her soppy codependent lyrics and dull arrangements. Used wisely, such a voice can bring you to tears. Used for ill, it can bore you to tears. Either way, tears are involved. People not fond of tears should just listen to Warrant.
The late San Francisco-based band Tarnation’s haunting 1995 4AD debut Gentle Creatures used singer/ songwriter Paula Frazer’s heavenly voice to gorgeous effect, so bittersweet and haunting you could just die. Her wails and ululations, laced with a pronounced Georgia twang, lend an eerie resonance to her narcotic country love songs, evoking a world both dingy and lush. There’s a throbbing, threnodic drone infesting the album, but otherwise it echoes the hoary honky-tonk hits of 1961. Think Patsy Cline on smack. On “Game of Broken Hearts,” Frazer’s soprano rings out with a tinny echo, as if she’s singing in an empty high school ballroom once the prom-goers have fled.
Frazer’s new disc Indoor Universe on Burbank’s Birdman Records–a belated solo debut three years after she stopped using the name Tarnation for her ever-shifting band (now including members of Oranger and Granfaloon Bus)–starts with a tune much in the vein of her earlier efforts. Despite a strings-soaked intro, “That You Know” could be an outtake from Gentle Creatures, with that same chilling voice and shadowy Western sound. The pace picks up with “This Is a Song” (which, in fact, it is): though the lyrics are moody (“What can I say, oh what can I do, ’cause each time I get close to you/ there’s something wrong with everything I do”), the tune is as rousing as an Irish drinking song or sing-along sea chantey. I dunno that you’d want to sing along with it, just that you probably will anyway. In contrast, the next harrowing heartbreaker Frazer croons, “Gone,” is so slow and sad it flows like blood into bathwater.
Unfortunately, the listening turns easy in a hurry: the lollipop lullaby “Think of Me” is Carpenter-corny, with loungey vibes and everything. And “Not So Bad, But Not So Good” is more sugar-coated still, with jaunty piano tinkling merrily away below Frazer’s world-weary moans, which at one point descend into Chrissie Hynde territory. And then there’s the French horn. It’s not unpleasant, really, but it’s just a little weird. “Mean Things” has some nice, soulful organ, but the combination of droning vocals and saccharine sentiment gets grating real quick.
“Deep Was the Night” lays on the Morricone Western atmosphere pretty thick, with thunder-rolling drums, echoing harmonica, stinging swooshes of strings, and heavy-reverb electric guitar in which you want to take off all your clothes and wallow like a happy hippo. Not that I actually did that. I’m just saying. The spare “We Met by the Love-Lies-Bleeding” sounds as if it’s being sung and strummed sleepily deep inside a long tunnel–with a guy on a French horn at the other end. You can imagine Nick Cave singing it, in much the same way but to vastly different effect. The final, bittersweet torch song, “The Only One,” has a hint of the elegant simplicity of something on the juke at a soda fountain three decades ago, but it’s based around the same basic rumba riff heard burbling on guitar earlier on the album, most prominently in “Stay as You Are,” and that’s a tad distracting.
A more consistently chilling record, the just-released debut disc from Berkeley’s Sylvi Alli, Too Near the Ghosts, drifted out of the ether just last week. It practically oozes elegant simplicity–and elegant complexity, and an elegant balance betwixt the twain. Composed, arranged, and recorded by Alli (in a couple cases with her hubby, filmmaker Antero Alli), and mixed and mastered by Myles Boisen, Too Near the Ghosts is a haunting debut. There’s nothing country about it, mind you. The only connection with Frazer is that Alli has a similarly haunting, heavenly voice that quickly finds the resonant frequency of your heart and shakes it to pieces. The closest it gets to twang is in “Far and Near,” written by Antero, whose echoing electric guitar strums are the only backing to Sylvi’s breathy balladic moans.
The minor-key teardrops of her piano and Beth Vandervennet’s sadly lowing cello create an arid, autumnal breeze through which Alli’s voice weaves like leaves in “It Struck Me,” an Elizabeth Browning poem set to music. Her baroque warbles and creepy organ on “Delarose” and the Antero-penned “Voices” lend a marrow-shivering vampire-movie resonance. Other tunes are all undulating electronics and resonant crooning–in “Intimates,” this approaches Laurie Anderson’s more dulcet moments, and the pulsing synth and operatic trills of “Madness” sound like what minimalism could be if it didn’t suck so much.
Available through the couple’s Web site, www.verticalpool.com, the CD is at times unearthly, but it’s also a more literal glimpse into a world of which I’d long been unaware. Sylvi’s Finnish-born husband has been creating plays in Berkeley since 1975 and films since at least the early ’90s, and last year Film Threat magazine featured a long interview with him. Antero’s 2000 feature videofilm Tragos, playing this Saturday at Berkeley’s Fine Arts Cinema, has a soundtrack by Sylvi (who also acts in the film), including three songs from Too Near the Ghosts. A glimpse into a world as lush as this invites deeper exploration.