San Francisco-based Tarnation comprised Paula Frazer (vocals/guitar), Alex Oropeza (guitar), Bill Cuevas (bass/lap steel) and Joe Byrnes (drums), were part of a movement of Alt Country on 4AD. Raised in Sautee Nacoochee, Georgia, a tiny village (pop: 260) in the Smoky Mountains region, Paula sung in her minister father’s church choir while her music teacher mother played the organ and piano. Steeped in classic American traditions from an impressionable age, Paula would sing “mostly religious hymns and gospel. But we listened to lots of things around the house, like Billie Holliday, Gershwin, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers.”

Alt Country on 4ADAt high school, she sung with various jazz groups, doing standards and her own, earliest songs, extending her experience by appearances in small cafes and dinner clubs at home and in towns like Springfield, Missouri and Fayetteville, Arkansas. Sautee Nacoochee was as pretty as a postcard, “but a bit lonely”. Good training, then, for the lonesome-prairie emotion built into Tarnation’s make- up. 

It made sense, then, that Tarnation (whom Paula formed in late 1992) were eventually signed by 4AD, the label having previously introduced Les Voix Bulgares to the west. Using country music as a springboad, Tarnation explored harrowing emotional terrain on their 1995 debut Gentle Creatures. Paula’s stark vocals split the difference between Patsy Cline and Leonard Cohen, while the band’s plaintive twangs and rumbles imbued her songs with an ever-escalating sense of unease. Tarnation returned with both a new member, bassist Jamie Meagan, and album in 1997. Mirador – Spanish for ‘spectator’ – evoked the subtle tension of a spaghetti Western soundtrack. Two songs, ‘There’s Someone’ and ‘You’ll Understand’, were released as limited 7″ singles. The group went their separate ways soon after, Alex and Joe focusing on their other outfit, Broken Horse, while Paula embarked on a solo career. In February 1999, the label re-released Gentle Creatures in the US, with five bonus tracks from the band’s first, pre-4AD release, I’ll Give You Something To Cry About.

Categories: Music