Gentle Creatures (4AD)


Around the time 4AD Records picked up Paula Frazer’s momentarily brilliant Tarnation for their roster the label was in the midst of a California awakening. There was that branch office in L.A., while that San Franciscan diary-rock band, Red House Painters, picked up the slack for the grinding bore that was the mid-90’s Pixies, and Heidi Berry unceremoniously made Joni Mitchell records. It was as if the blueprint Ivo Watts-Russell had laid with his canonical vanity project, This Mortal Coil, rose up in a moment of awkward transition and obscurity. Watts-Russell, with not so much time left for the label he started in 1979 (he officially split in 1999) seemed to enjoy a moment as the charioteer of that Laurel Canyonland which had been so integral to This Mortal Coil.

Gentle Creatures, when it works, does so for two reasons: sloppy grace and luck. Paula Frazer’s pristine Appalachian-style yodel has all the rusticated clarity of Patsy Cline, if not Ms. Cline’s jazz-like sensitivity with phrasing. Far from problematic, the sense of slackness grants the music a kind of unguarded warmth.

No doubt, Frazer carries this record over patches a lesser singer could not. Behind her plays a competent, if drowsy, alt country ensemble cooked up of the usual genetic stuff: Lone Justice, Cowboy Junkies, the Eagles, and Gram Parsons. It’s a modern honky-tonk approximation, and it tires along the way—that Frazer herself is such a natural makes some of the results all the more frustrating.

“The Game of Broken Hearts” opens the affair grandly. Reverberating hollow-body guitar and voice share the nickel-size spotlight. The production effects suggest it was recorded in a coffee can in 1945 rather than a studio in 1995—a rare instance of such contrivance working in the song’s favor. Nevertheless it does. Like the music David Lynch, Angelo Badalamenti, and Julee Cruise created for the tv show, Twin Peaks, it isn’t so much an imitation of early 60’s rock aesthetics (or early 40’s production values as the case may be) as it is a kind of time-warped invocation. The difference is, in both cases, there is a sensibility being channeled, as opposed to a sound being lifted.

And was it that a vintage aura, and the light in moving brine-rusted chrome were all it took this would readily be called a classic.

However, songs grow thin as Gentle Creatures proceeds, and certainly the high watermark of that first, rather astonishing, number is not met again. One notable exception is the Warren Defever-recorded “Big O Motel”, a California country weeper in the vein of Linda Ronstadt. It’s a pretty song, gilded by Frazer’s spiraling chorus. Her lover is but a peripheral shape, and the image of her lying beside him “in the Big O Motel/On the vibrating bed” has a terrific Loserville poignancy.

After finishing another record in 1997, the logical progression played out, Tarnation disbanded, or more accurately, Paula Frazer started professionally calling herself Paula Frazer. She scored some memorable cameos over the years (a smart duet on Cornershop’s When I Was Born For The 7th Time, and again on the Prince Paul/Dan the Automator project, Handsome Boy Modeling School). A solo career has yet to earn her the recognition a voice so intelligent and gifted deserves. And even if Gentle Creatures’ flawed magnificence becomes her legacy—which by all appearances it has, it is still a legacy worthy of a visit involving genuflection.