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Paula Frazer

Paula Frazer is flat-out one of America's finest songwriters, the leader of a new class of independent-minded U.S. musicians who seek to consolidate assorted traditional and regional styles into a deeply personal musical approach. Few approach Frazer's skill at such undertakings. It figures for a musician who grew up the daughter of a minister and a church choir leader in the foothills of Georgia's Smoky Mountains, sang in church choirs while worshipping Nick Cave in Arkansas during her teens, and then played in assorted post-punk and roots rock bands in San Francisco in her twenties. Along the way, Frazer has developed one of the most distinctive and rangey altos in all of popular music and an assured songwriting style that feels traditional and new at the same time.

The relocation to San Francisco came in 1981 and for the next decade Frazer kicked around the city's rock scene, playing with everything from the feminist noise-rock group Frightwig to the stark folk-rock ensemble Virginia Dare. In 1992, Frazer formed the Tarnation, a dreamy, fluid alt-country ensemble with an ever-changing lineup. The group debuted on the small Nuf Said label with I'll Give You Something to Cry About. Gentle Creatures came out on 4AD Records in 1995, and while it was possessed with much of the same ethereal atmosphere which has always distinguished 4AD artists, the most important influences here were those of Frazer's youth: stuff like Billie Holiday and The Carter Family. On this and the final Tarnation album, Mirador, Frazer emerged as a magnificent Americana torch singer, summoning the ghosts of past epochs with her smoky balladry and dark, gothic arrangements.

In 1998, Frazer and the band dropped Tarnation, recording and performing instead under her name. In 2001, they returned with the sublime, beautifully realized Indoor Universe on Birdman. Frazer's voice is in fine form here, rich and powerful as ever, full of emotional country twang like a modern-day Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette. The album's 11 songs display dazzling range, from the plaintive Southwestern shuffle of "That You Know" to chilling minimalist beauty of "Gone" to the fey early '60s pop of "Not So Bad, But Not So Good" to the histrionic swing-swept noir of "Deep Was the Night." Indoor Universe merely cements Frazer's status as one of the country's finest working artists. She's a national treasure!