SF Seals
Truth Walks in Sleepy Shadows

NOW HERE, LAST year's SF Seals debut, courted disorientation with jarring between-song breaks and an eight-minute experimental number, but the actual tunes were mostly pedestrian pop. Truth Walks in Sleepy Shadows, however, is a triumph; it's the sound of bandleader and San Francisco perennial Barbara Manning figuring out where psychedelia fits in her scheme. Here, the dislocations have been rendered internal to the songs themselves. Take "Locked Out," which keeps shifting back and forth from the kind of gentle guitar plaint Manning's put her stamp on to a queasier sense of desperation each time the refrain climaxes. It turns verse-chorus-verse structure into a map of a failing relationship: Realizing you've been "locked out" doesn't keep you from trying, again and again, to search for points of entry into that barricaded heart.

"Ladies of the Sea" achieves similar results with an even more clever arrangement: the tremble of a vibraphone behind a mesmerized tempo communicates both the pleasure of floating and the muted terror of going under ("Don't sink like that/You'll pull me with you"). Psychedelic atmospherics give this CD more than just its layered gorgeousness--John Cale's "Soul of Patrick Lee" and Manning's own "Bold Letters" come off as testaments to sonic beauty, but also offer Manning new musical means through which to realize her ongoing fascination with contradictory emotional states that nonetheless manage to coexist.

As ever, she sees the humor as well as the pathos in such self-defeating setups: "Ipecac" might be read as a girl's nauseated revenge on all those '60s prepunk stompers where boys run in sneering terror from a chick they've labeled "poison"--you know, the sort who freaks them out while driving them wild. A few songs later, Manning's best rocker in years, "Pulp," similarly bursts forward full-blown with the brilliant assertion, "When you walked out on me/Part of me wanted to walk out on me with you."

Like all of Truth's harder-edged numbers (including a cover of the Pretty Things' made-to-order "SF Sorrow"), this one gets much of its kick from Bay Area vet Melanie Clarin's insistent drumming. SF Seals sound more than ever like a band here, but unfortunately both Clarin and bassist Margaret Murray have left the band since this recording. Manning, though, shows little sign of slowing down. If she's been both a reliable and frustratingly self-effacing indie-rock presence for years now, here she flaunts a new authority, the result of taking an older S.F. musical heritage and making it suddenly, necessarily, her own. (Jen Fleissner)

SF Seals perform Sunday with Chris Knox at the Uptown Bar & Cafe.

Son Volt
Warner Bros.

AFTER THE BREAKUP of Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy forged quickly "ahead" with his new group Wilco and the gorgeous country rock of A.M. Jay Farrar, Uncle Tupelo's other songwriting half, has taken his time, perhaps under the weight of excessive expectations unavoidably heaped upon "the profound one."

With Jeff and Jay, the obviously adversarial relationship between the pop sense and rocking good nature of the former and the brooding folk-torch power of the latter stoked the flames of anticipation--and slightly blurred the memory. Enough comparisons to Kurt Cobain, and I was starting to believe Farrar's release would pack that kind of revolutionary energy. 'Tis not so. His subdued country ballads on Trace do, however, make the wrenching most of his trademark inner turmoil. This guy has never worried that his earnest imagery made anybody wince, and he continues to wear his melancholy resignation and rough poetic integrity on his sleeve, laying them out in that familiar, deliberate, acquired-taste vocal that never quite cuts off a phoneme where it should.

Where Wilco has gone for a full-stage sound, both live and on disc, Farrar risks allowing his spare effort a contemplative space. While somewhat disappointing as the missive from the one with "something to say," when played against A.M., Trace emerges as (surprise surprise) the record with the heart. Tweedy has always been the one with the marketing plan, the one whose rootsy authenticity (punk or country) didn't chafe at the rock-star mantle. Farrar's Son Volt reflects a predictably pared-down rejection of such trappings -- and, he's hoping, its traps. (Laura Sinagra)

Son Volt performs Monday with the Bottle Rockets at First Avenue.

Gentle Creatures

Geraldine Fibbers
Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home

ONE OF THE prettiest voices in pop music last year could be heard only on an obscure record called I'll Give You Something to Cry About! (Nuf Sed) by Tarnation, a faux-country outfit from San Francisco. The voice belonged to Paula Frazer, and while it sounded pretty all the time, it achieved transcendence on one cut in particular: the woozy "Game of Broken Hearts," in which Frazer accuses, "There's nothing you give that's not dangerous or cold," and then repeatedly moans a tremulous trill of sorrow. It goes like this: lyrics, moan, lyrics, moan, moan, moan. The song is sublime, and now it's available on a less obscure and better-produced album, Gentle Creatures, which culls a half-dozen tracks from I'll Give You Something and adds a bunch more.

Tarnation lay on the pedal-steel melodrama pretty thick, but they manage to offer more than just another variety of Americana noir, thanks to two not always compatible qualities: sincerity and a sense of humor. The sincerity comes through partly in respect for form; there's little doubt Tarnation's country-music worldview is filtered through old movies and other vehicles of nostalgia, but that doesn't mean they're emulating Patsy Cline and Hank Williams just for cheap thrills. No, these city kids have really paid attention to all that vintage heartache, and they get it right, or as right as they want to get it.

The group's sense of humor is, unfortunately, somewhat downplayed by the omission of tunes from I'll Give You Something like "Rancho Carne Humano" and "They Took You Away Once Again"--in the latter, Frazer tells a psychotic ex-lover, "I've let all the people in our basement go free/and I've given your knives to the Salvation Army." But even so, on Gentle Creatures Tarnation take themselves with enough grains of salt to throw in a line about a guy with "sausage-shaped fingers" in the middle of an elegantly sad ballad of lost love.

Where Tarnation are reserved, melancholy, and oblique, another West-Coast faux-country outfit--L.A.'s Geraldine Fibbers--are exhilarating and anthemic, sandwiching mournful fiddle between crunchy guitar rave-ups and introducing a singer who sounds as if she has enough personality to go head-to-head with Courtney Love, no holds barred. Carla Bozulich has a nice way with a guitar and a sarcastic screech, and she knows how to entertain herself in style: As she sings on "Dragon Lady," the album's first single, "I'm stopping everything/making fun of myself/drinking lipstick/tipping bookshelves/ripping up words that I thought were important/... Everything I say is a stupid lie/I won't tell the truth even when I die." Running over with Bozulich's dreamy tales of violent love and Daniel Keenan's noisy but tuneful guitar, Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home is a top-notch debut in the L.A. urban-country-punk tradition instigated by Exene Cervenka and John Doe. (Ivan Krielkamp)

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