While certain iterations of indie rock have always embraced certain tenets of folk and country, they’ve always been infused with other styles and ideas. Even when
Sufjan Stevens led the banjo revolution in the late ‘00s, critics and fans tempered those folky sounds with adjectives like twee, chamber, cinematic. The Will Oldhams and Bill Callahans of the world kept plugging along, reinventing Townes Van Zandt and John Prine for the 21st century, ensconced in a subcultural bubble. However, we have seen a resurgence in classic country and folk tropes bleeding into the greater pop and rock milieu as well as standing on their own. Combined with a renewed interest in confessional lyricism, it’s been refreshing to experience.
This renewed attention to the traditional singer/songwriter approach benefits artists like Sarah Bethe Nelson. Having labored in the San Francisco music community for more than a decade, her three earlier albums achieved modest acclaim in smaller folks circles. But with the release of Mental Picture on Speakeasy Studios, she stands poised to reach a wider audience. Across eight artful songs, she weaves together elements of Angel Olsen, Neko Case, Cat Power, and Bill Callahan to create groovy folk with heavy country and psych inflections.
It all starts with the laid-back production aesthetic that operating from a place of restraint. This approach gives Nelson’s hushed alto the attention it deserves, allowing it to be the aural focal point around which the instrumentation can dance. The guitar work is clean and sparse, which provides ample room for both the strumming and picking to reverberate across the song. Serving as a stylistic complement, the quiet yet solid drumming offers the rhythmic backbone these songs need, especially when the brushes emerge. But it’s the supplementary accompaniment that delivers the necessary textural heft, from the layers of harmony vocals (typically provided by Nelson herself) and tambourine jangles to the delicate interplay of organ swells, horn bleats, and piano trills.
Anchored in the interplay between a fuzzed-out bass guitar and warbling rhythm guitar phrases, “Can’t Catch a Break” is a downtempo, bluesy dirge that would seem at home on a Sharon Van Etten album. Nelson then shows an appreciation for her stylistic forebears when she delivers woebegone yet humorous turns of phrase such as, “I planned on playing concerts to show the world my tunes/ I wound up on the porch with the possums and raccoons.” My favorite track on the record, “Fake Fighting” channels the warmth of early Sheryl Crow, especially with the tender acoustic guitar strums, amiable swirls of organ, and the gentle crescendo toward its apex. But what truly grabs my attention is how effectively Nelson conveys the slowly building tension between star-crossed lovers when she sings, “It’s wishful thinking ‘til the lights stop blinking ‘til the lights stop blinking and finally glow or fucking explode.”
The nearly eight-minute title track closes out the album and serves as a tremendous statement of artistic intent. All of the elements featured on the earlier seven songs come loaded for bear, from the spaghetti western electric guitar, layered percussion, thick bass root notes, and slow trudge up to the song’s peak. Lyrically, the song is packed with concepts such as, “We spend our lifetimes holy diving chasing the bright things, blissfully falling through the cracks.” Nelson wants you to know that the artist’s life is neither glamorous nor easy, but it can be worth it if you have the right people in your life.
Mental Picture is a testament to the power of less. While far from formal minimalism, the music of Sarah Bethe Nelson delights in serving up sublime subtleties that tickle the ear and hold you close. While the melodic progressions feel familiar and stand firm within a comfortable folk forma, she also understands how to bend and morph those ideals to suit her purposes. She is a strong songwriter who adamantly refuses to reach for a crescendo if it’s merely a cheap thrill. Like all the legendary folk musicians of yore, Nelson makes each musical moment matter by keeping things loose and raw on the surface but delivering dexterous execution underneath.
Label: Speakeasy Studios