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.
Sorta performs Thursday, October 23, at House of Blues' Pontiac Garage.
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.
Conjuring up such a thought may not have been the intent in the artistic direction of the album's cover, but, in retrospect, it serves as just another reminder, along with the music, of Albrecht's omnipresent role in Sorta. "There's a little moment in every song," Balis says, "where you hear Carter's part and you're just like, 'Man, that was badass.'"
For Holt, listening to those parts have helped him come to terms with what he says was, regardless of Albrecht's death, a difficult recording session. "We were doing 40 or 50 takes back to back, hour after hour, with [local producer] Stuart [Sikes]," he says. "I was fairly frustrated, so my memory of making the record is a pretty difficult one. But when I put on my headphones and I listen to the record now, after having not thought about it for eight months, all those negative feelings go away."
And that's the thing about Sorta. Yes, it's a sad record, both in theme and retrospect, but it's also a fine representation of the band's sound. It exudes a homey charm as it slaloms between pop, rock, roots and alt-country genres, and regardless of the difficult time the band may have had in producing it, its intricacies portray an image of a band enjoying the creation of music, with little regard for how it will be received critically. To that degree, it's more than just a seminal Sorta disc; it's a near-perfect representation of the Dallas music scene as it has existed over the last few years.
Even so, Johnson, as pleased as he is with the final product—"If this is the last Sorta record, and I think we all know that it will be, it's a good one to go out on"—still balks somewhat at presenting it live.
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"I wonder if people really want us to play," he says. "The last thing I ever wanted for this band was for it to become a funeral march where every show is just sad. That would be terrible. But I wonder if people are missing the band. I know they're missing Carter."
As such, Sorta's members don't anticipate much eulogizing or memorializing taking place during its final show. "We're just gonna go up there and play 10 songs," Balis says.
But no matter how much or how little Albrecht's missing presence is acknowledged, it will no doubt be on the minds of both the band members and the fans in attendance. Because, on this night, which Holt is calling the band's "proper goodbye," a bright chapter in Dallas music history (even with its dark end), will come to an end.
"I think the fans maybe need some closure," Johnson says. "We all do. I think that's healthy."