By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It's a little eerie.
And impossible to avoid, actually: When you sit down and listen to Sorta's self-titled fifth—and, yep, it's been confirmed, last—record, you can't help but think that a number of these songs were written specifically for and about band member Carter Albrecht, who, at 34 years old, was shot and killed just more than a year ago.
Of course, these songs aren't about Albrecht. Like, at all. Not even in the slightest.
But given Sorta frontman Trey Johnson's penchant for sad, retrospective lyrics ("It's a terrible crime, the spell I'm under/I spent my whole life looking over my shoulder" from Sorta's second track, "Grown Man"), it's tough to separate the one from the other—even if they were never intended to be listened to under such scrutiny.
"Trey's songs have always been that way," Sorta bassist Danny Balis explains with a shrug of his shoulders that seems to dismiss any literal intertwining of subject matter and surrounding situation. "He writes about death a lot."
Though Albrecht's death will forever hang like a dark cloud over this final Sorta record—if not the band's entire catalog—it had very little bearing on the direction of the disc. In fact, Albrecht played on each of the album's tracks; helped arrange them, too, fleshing them out from the amorphous blobs Johnson brought to the band in preparation for this disc's recording process. The band was just putting the finishing touches on the record when, on September 3, 2007, Albrecht's clock ran out.
And, albeit unintentionally, the night that forever changed the lives of Albrecht's friends, family and many band mates from over the years also changed the way these specific songs will be interpreted.
"These songs now—considering—they say something else," Johnson says. "A lot of them are going to be underneath this cloud. There's no way for them not to be. Carter's playing is so distinct, and when you listen to it now, it's impossible not to picture him playing."
For the members of Sorta, that image is a tough one to swallow. In recent weeks, as the band's remaining members have rehearsed for the sole show they will play—likely ever again, at least under the Sorta banner—as promotion for the album's release, they've been forced to face their memories head on. And just as each person grieves in his or her own way, returning to the group has spawned different reactions for each of Sorta's members.
For Johnson, it's been cathartic: "It's wonderful to go back and see people smiling."
For guitarist and keyboard player Chris Holt, though, it's been a little awkward. Considering that he and Albrecht shared instruments and swapped playing duties in the band, he's been forced to take on a number of Albrecht's parts in rehearsals. "The one thing that has been a little strange is 'Afraid of the Dark,'" he says of rehearsing the album's closer—the lone track in which a majority of the parts, aside from Albrecht's guitar play, were added after his death. "When we worked on it the other night, I had to play his guitar parts—and, of course, I want to play them like him and do them justice. But I looked over at Danny, and you could tell it was tough for him."
Indeed, for Balis, who still counts Albrecht as his "best friend," the process has been downright difficult: "I'm ready for it to be over with, actually," he says. "Rehearsing's been kinda fun—that's great, just being able to be around those guys. But there's a lot of ghosts and memories. It's not my favorite situation to be around."
Johnson, as proud as he is of the record, understands as much. What's weird, though, is that, originally, he intended this record to be Sorta's lightest, thematically. Certain lyrics, he points out, including the line "I had a major breakdown and a minor in Greek" from "Poor Little Child," were intended to remove the band's material from its often darker themes of yore. Now, though, they play more like stabs at comic relief to an otherwise heady record. To a degree, they accomplish the task, but even Johnson knows how difficult a pill the record will be for many of his band's fans to swallow.
"It wasn't as if Carter was just a side man," Johnson says. "He was as much of a front man as me. People identified the band with Carter and, for a lot of people, listening to this record, it's going to be a very sad thing."
That dynamic, with Albrecht not necessarily asking for but still earning the spotlight, is somewhat subconsciously played out on Sorta's cover, which depicts two rows of birds perched on telephone wires. That image, Johnson says, was selected mostly because the band members enjoyed the visual; it came from a poster used to promote a Sorta show a few years back. But it's tough not to look at the disc and notice that the birds at least appear to be sparrows—which, of course, was the name of Albrecht's other recent project.