Out There

American Gothic

Mirador
Tarnation
Reprise Records

You can picture Tarnation singer Paula Frazer's living room: a tattered Patsy Cline biography on the coffee table next to a Faulkner novel, a Johnny Guitar movie poster on the wall, a video of For a Few Dollars More playing with the sound turned down, and a Marty Robbins record on the stereo. At least that's what Mirador suggests.

"An Awful Shade of Blue" kicks off with a galloping western rhythm and Ennio Morricone-style choir wailing over lush guitar licks and Frazer's crystalline vocals. The second song, "Wait," rides the same saddle and establishes a cinematic feel. Then "Place Where I Know" confirms that Tarnation peels off the machismo and bravado of spaghetti (country and) western and keeps only the beautiful melodies and sun-soaked heartache. No Man With No Name threatens to appear in the next frame chomping on an unlit stogie--this is more likely the soundtrack to The Good, The Sad, and The Melancholy.

With a voice devoid of artificial twang but with plenty of folk intonations and siren callings, Frazer sings about loss and longing like a female Roy Orbison. Lavishly mournful, Mirador makes Chris Isaak sound like a happy-go-lucky popster. The solemn melodies seem on the verge of crumbling as songs shift between anticipation and resignation, an intense feeling of nostalgia for things that were probably never there in the first place. You cannot tell if Frazer has lived these scenarios she so lucidly describes; maybe she is merely enamored with the idea of an imaginary west where boys and girls stay blue because this is the color of all good pop songs. Or perhaps she's just a broken-hearted damsel who wraps her wounds with lace. In any case, this ambiguity is one of the album's most alluring qualities.

The prevailing image is of dusty streets in a deserted border town with a warm wind blowing away party lanterns and garlands; on a porch a pale senorita is waiting for a man she knows will never come back. Could she be anyone but Frazer herself?

Frazer has taken old frontier music, clothed it in smoky melodrama, and embroidered it with Spanish trumpets and whistles. Frazer's wispy sensitivity makes what would otherwise be trendy camp real and believable, infused with spooky delivery and lopsided nuances and going beyond revivalism. You'll have to take Frazer's word and stay in her haunted world for a while, then watch her ride off into her own sepia-colored cardboard sunset.

David Lynch should take a listen to this.

--Philip Chrissopoulos

 
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