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Spaghetti Gothic

Lyn Gaza

What in Tarnation?: Paula Frazer and company's major-label debut, "Mirador," defies easy categorization.

Tarnation heads to Europe to promote distinctive disc

By Zack Stentz

Remember Zamfir, the television pan flautist whose ads solemnly informed us that his "music is loved by millions in Europe"? I always suspected that phrase was code for "You've never heard of him,but trust us, he's popular."

Still, European audiences also have a history of embracing cutting-edge American musicians before stateside listeners do, from Jimi Hendrix and the jazz and blues artists up through (ulp!) Terence Trent D'arby. Taking a cue from these predecessors is Tarnation, the beloved San Francisco group whose major-label debut, Mirador (Reprise), is winning critical raves. On the phone from her Mission District apartment, songwriter/ frontwoman Paula Frazer explains the label's unusual strategy for promoting the group. "We're about to head to Europe for two months of touring," she says. "The idea right now is to build us up over there, and in the media that's read on both sides of the Atlantic, before we come back and tour the U.S. in July and August."

Tarnation isn't the only San Francisco group to adopt this "go East" strategy. "There are a whole bunch of San Francisco artists who have built up bigger audiences in Europe than in the U.S.: American Music Club, Sonia Hunter, Subtle Plague, Penelope Houston and even Chris Isaak to an extent."

But why would European listeners rush to embrace this passel of well-regarded but mostly commercially marginal artists? It's certainly not geographic proximity. One thing Frazer and Tarnation share with the artists she lists is a mastery of and attention to the craft of songwriting, a nearly lost art in the current American scene, with its slurred alt-rock histrionics and cut-and-paste post­hip-hop pastichism. So is it Tarnation's deft blend of moody, haunting lyrics and gothic-folk-Latin sound that's distracting countless Continentals from worrying over unemployment and the move toward a single currency long enough to hit the concert hall?

"That might be true, that they're responding to the songwriting in Europe," answers Frazer, turning over the idea in her head a moment. "But then again, techno's really big over there as well."

Damn. Another music writer's pet theory shot down in flames by an interviewee's use of empirical reality.

But in the end, it's immaterial why audiences in Europe respond. The simple fact is that they are soaking up Tarnation's richly textured, genre-defying music. As befits her Arkansas roots, Mission District abode and training as an archaeologist (she participated in the dig which exhumed pioneer graves on the Palace of the Legion of Honor site), Frazer's songs abound with touches of Faulkneresque Southern gothicism, landscapes inhabited by lonely ghosts and crumbling buildings and Latin flourishes by way of Ennio Morricone spaghetti Western soundtracks.

A glib and common approach is to lump Tarnation with the burgeoning "alt-country" camp populated by the likes of Wilco and Uncle Tupelo. "I don't know why people do that," Frazer says. "I mean, I'm influenced by Patsy Cline, but I also love Billie Holiday, Yma Sumac, Bulgarian choir music [Frazer used to sing in the local Bulgarian choral group Savina] and Portishead."

"You'll hear a lot more Latin influence on this album than Gentle Creatures [Tarnation's previous album on the 4 A.D. label], and I think a lot of that comes from living in the Mission," Frazer adds.

"The cultural diversity and sense of history is what makes San Francisco such a good place to be. A lot of what I write about is rooted in the history and ghost stories of this area."

Which is gratifying, in a way. Though Mirador may well expand Tarnation's audience beyond its current Bay Area/European base, it's difficult to imagine Frazer moving to L.A. and writing "The Tale of the Haunted In-&-Out Burger."

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From the May 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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