UNCUT - - New Albums - SAD­DLE CREEK

Florida na­tive’s sweet but strong, un­flinch­ingly hon­est first al­bum. By Sharon O’Con­nell

The idea of mu­sic as sal­va­tion or at least a balm for dis­tressed souls is a pop­u­lar one, usu­ally ap­plied to the lis­tener, rather then the maker. As is that of mu­sic as a refuge – but few mean it quite as lit­er­ally as Louisville­based singer-song­writer Sarah Beth Tomber­lin, who’s de­scribed her de­but LP as “a kind of shel­ter”, built through a sur­vival­ist in­stinct as pro­tec­tion from the ex­treme iso­la­tion she feared at one point might “very much” kill her.

As au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal nar­ra­tives of 23-year-old new­com­ers go, Tomber­lin’s is a com­pelling one, a gift for ex­pe­ri­en­tial rub­ber­necks and emo­tional voyeurs that makes for slightly un­com­fort­able retelling, not due to the de­tails them­selves, but be­cause por­ing over the life ex­pe­ri­ences of (es­pe­cially) young women as if that’s the most they could have to of­fer cre­atively has be­come a wide­spread bad habit. Bot­tom-line de­cency is an is­sue here, but more cru­cial is the ques­tion of whether or not the au­thor’s ex­pe­ri­ences con­sti­tute their work’s core in any di­rect, re­la­tional sense. And that’s an ob­vi­ous af­fir­ma­tive in this case – so much so, that th­ese 10 songs aren’t so much “about” the ques­tion­ing of faith, iden­tity and life pur­pose that pitched Tomber­lin into de­spair, as leak­ages of her self through the walls of that de­fen­sive struc­ture.

At Wed­dings is her­metic in the man­ner of Bon Iver’s For Emma, For­ever Ago and equally mea­sured, sin­cere and vul­ner­a­ble, al­though that’s where the sim­i­lar­i­ties end: it was recorded and pro­duced by Owen Pal­lett, who also plays gui­tar and ana­logue synth and sings back­ing vo­cals, and its foun­da­tion isn’t folk but the hymns Tomber­lin sang in church grow­ing up. hardly sur­pris­ing, since lis­ten­ing to sec­u­lar mu­sic was for­bid­den to the Jack­sonville-born daugh­ter of a Bap­tist pas­tor, who was home-schooled and then at­tended a pri­vate Chris­tian col­lege she’s de­scribed as a “cult”. Sneaked, non-re­li­gious lis­ten­ing was to Bright eyes and Dash­board Con­fes­sional via her cousin’s iTunes li­brary, while later on, Ar­cade Fire’s Neon Bi­ble made a big im­pact. Seven of the tracks were writ­ten when Tomber­lin went back to live with her fam­ily in ru­ral Illi­nois af­ter drop­ping out of col­lege at 17. Able to play gui­tar and pi­ano by ear from a young age, she’d al­ways writ­ten songs, but it was the sweet “Tornado”, with the buzz of an over­head chop­per as its in­tro, pel­lu­cid keys and a strik­ing im­age of its cre­ator as “a tornado with big green eyes” that she chose to share first, edg­ing her out of that de­bil­i­tat­ing lone­li­ness.

Se­lected by Mi­rah (Yom Tov Zeit­lyn) as part of Joyful Noise’s White La­bel se­ries and first re­leased in a limited edi­tion last Oc­to­ber, the LP has had three new songs added for its Sad­dle Creek is­sue. Two of them are among the set’s strong­est: on the coun­try-toned “I’m Not Scared”, Tomber­lin’s ring­ing, soft-grey tone and mouth-against-the-mic in­ti­macy con­vey blunt per­sonal truths – “I look for re­demp­tion in ev­ery­body else, but funny thing is that I al­ways hated church… and to be a woman is to be in pain…” – while “Sev­en­teen”, which fea­tures braided vo­cal har­monies, gui­tar twan­gling and the faintest echo of Fleet­wood Mac’s “Land­slide” is her pop­pi­est ex­pres­sion, al­though it’s kept in check by a chal­leng­ing “only love the peo­ple who don’t love you back/What is up with that?”. Of the ear­lier songs, “Self-help” and “Un­ti­tled 2” shine par­tic­u­larly bright: on the for­mer, the play of rhyth­mic and melodic gui­tar lines is pitched into a gently shriek­ing storm of Wurl­itzer keys that swells over her vo­cal, which in­cludes the odd line, “but you know I’m not your nap­kin” (a mis­heard lyric from an Alex G song). And the phone-recorded “Un­ti­tled 2”, with its aquatic am­bi­ence, sub­tle static crack­ling and ghostly mur­mur­ing, im­plies Grouper as kin­dred spir­its.

The in­ti­mate, home-recorded sound and open na­ture of Tomber­lin’s lyrics might sug­gest the struc­ture she built with At Wed­dings is a frag­ile one, but that’s not the case. What­ever its emo­tional well-spring, her ex­pres­sion is clear, pur­pose­ful and strong in its di­rect­ness and blessed with enough sly wit and wry self-aware­ness to de­liver a line like “I used the self-help book to kill a fly/I think it worked Mom/I think I’m fine” (from “Self-help”). That in many ways Tomber­lin has al­ready lost con­trol of th­ese songs, she read­ily ac­knowl­edges. “I’m happy to share my ex­pe­ri­ence,” she says. “I am a pretty trans­par­ent per­son. The only strange as­pect is that peo­ple can now share their hot takes on my per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence.”

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