There’s a charmingly, no doubt intentionally anachronistic quality to Pearl Charles. Her press shots often feel like stylish found-photos from the ’70s, Charles invariably donning a fabulous hat and surrounded by grassy landscapes. Even her name seems to evoke a vintage Western sensibility—it doesn’t seem so often that you run into young people named Pearl these days, though Charles never comes across as inauthentic or manufactured. Not that it matters—nobody ever accused GWAR of not being sincere enough. Yet that earthiness and classic Southern California image is one that’s inextricable from Charles’ music, which revives the smoky sunset haze of a mythic Laurel Canyon. Pearl Charles’ Sleepless Dreamer—the L.A. singer/songwriter’s debut album—is a fine addition to a long legacy of California’s psychedelic country-rock.
To be fair, it’s not like that sound ever went away. Artists such as Jenny Lewis and Ryan Adams have been letting their turned-up twang ring throughout the Southland for pretty much the entirety of the millennium thus far, and Charles’ own hazy strutters fit pretty comfortably alongside those songwriter’s LPs (just not alphabetically). Having debuted with her self-titled cassette EP via Burger in 2015, Charles has already made a name for herself early on with some gorgeously arranged and gritty tracks bathed in pedal steel, Rhodes piano and weed smoke. It’s a rich blend, and it comes together impressively on Sleepless Dreamer.
Part of the success behind the album is that its 10 tracks are all essentially pop songs wreathed in the regalia of country rock. They’re all uniformly concise and are produced to sound great even on lousy speakers. Close listening most certainly reveals greater detail—those Rhodes and pedal steel accents sound all the more sumptuous under the right condition—but on factory speakers with the windows down, they still do the trick. Leadoff track “All the Boys” has a lightly psychedelic groove about it, aided by some fluttering synth textures and Charles’ own sweetly sung indifference (“All the boys that remain/They all act the same as you“). The single “Night Tides” finds Charles and her band getting funkier, slipping into something a little darker and better fit under the reflection of a discoball. Though the album’s immediate standout is its title track, blending a Crazy Horse roots-rock sound with a dream-pop shimmer. Ultimately it’s the latter that wins out, underscoring Charles’ sensual suggestion, “Sometimes the softest touch is enough to drive you the wildest.”
It’s easy to spot Pearl Charles’ various influences, though they tend to come through in segments rather than whole-cloth homage. Charles stitches together folk, country, rock, psychedelia, disco and even elements of shoegaze into something that ends up sounding like perfectly scuffed-up pop. Sleepless Dreamer might evoke a stylized version of a Los Angeles of a time long past, but more importantly, it’s a strong showing of the kind of great songwriting a Los Angeles talent has to offer right now.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.