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Paula Frazer - Indoor Universe

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Artist: Paula Frazer

Album: Indoor Universe

Label: Birdman

Review date: Aug. 28, 2003

San Francisco’s Paula Frazer was the creative voice behind Tarnation, which released three records in the mid-‘90s (she also appeared with the vicious, proto-Riot Grrl collective Frightwig). Indoor Universe, her solo debut, is more upbeat and less indebted to Nick Cave, but it still maintains much of that band’s willingness to explore the southern(/western) gothic from a distance.

It’s tempting to lump Frazer’s solo material alongside Bay Area crooner Chris Isaak’s. Like a lot of Isaak’s music, the songs of Paula Frazer seem to take place within the drama of a scenario (this, as opposed to referring to actual, real-life settings) that we often associate with classic country music, e.g., honor, unrequited love, the fool’s moon. Listeners will quickly realize that many of the songs on Indoor Universe bring to mind the lazy shuffle and reverb-heavy guitar of what is perhaps Isaak’s most memorable tune, “Wicked Game”. Discriminating listeners will, however, further associate much of the music on Indoor Universe with the cinematic environment of “Wild at Heart”, the 1990 David Lynch film that broke Chris Isaak via its inclusion of “Wicked Game”. Follow that free associative thread, because the music on this record is far more enjoyable when considered in the light of a Lynchian universe, a space in which it doesn’t particularly sound out of place.

Ultimately, it’s not really fair to compare Frazer – who was actually born in the South and raised in a musical home in which she was exposed to Country, Bluegrass and Blues – to Chris Isaak (born in Stockton, CA), who is effectively a rock musician on extended hiatus in a world of rockabilly chic and slight country detours. And it’s probably not fair to force yourself to listen to Frazer within the confines of a fictitious soundtrack to a body of film-work that succeeds creatively in direct proportion to a popular audience’s inability to understand it. Paula Frazer makes pop music (although of an idiosyncratic and unique variety that will likely never be particularly popular) and her craft should be considered as such.

Frazer’s country influences are often more in tune with much of the mid- to late-’60s work of Ennio Morricone than with Roy Orbison. The haunted wail of female backing vocals, the sorrowful strings, ominous horns, and the mellow rhythm of organ heard throughout the record are vintage Spaghetti Western, and Frazer has sorted out the influence better than Tortoise; she’s more in tune, perhaps, with John Zorn (who made a whole amazing album out of the stuff).

There is a grand, sprawling quality to a lot of the music here, including the driving “Deep Was the Night”, and in the transcendent themes of “That You Know” and “The Only One”. Indoor Universe sounds epic and timeless in a way that’s not supposed to exist anymore. This music is otherworldly – very cinematic and fictitious in its ability to transcend the real, or to evade it completely.

There are also some tracks that work on their own merits, without inclusion into the quasi-Lynchian Spaghetti Western realm. “Mean Things” succeeds as a bluesy, slow-cooking rocker, an organ-driven ballad that somehow marries Steely Dan and Cat Power. “Everywhere” comes out of, well, nowhere, sounding like a Burt Bacharach tune, with a tinkling electric piano refrain that is reminiscent of Elvis Costello’s “I Turn Around”. And while on the topic of Costello, there is a definite debt to that songwriter’s flirtation with country that can be heard throughout this record, which even surfaces in a very pop-oriented setting on “Not So Bad, But Not So Good”, and especially “Think of Me.”

By Cory O'Malley

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