“Maybe start somewhere,” sings Sarah Bethe Nelson on the frisky song, “Start Somewhere,” which starts her album, “Fast-Moving Clouds" (Burger Records). If there’s a hesitancy to the statement, it fits.
This is someone just now making her solo debut at age 38. This comes after years of slogging away in the Bay Area roots-rock band Prairiedog while tending bar at the Make Out Room, a Mission District dive. All of that provides background for this album’s vivid tableaux.
Toward the end of the title song she sings, “So you be Sam Cooke and I’ll be you.” Suggesting that her lover be the tragic soul singer who was killed under sordid circumstances? It’s part whimsical musing, part convoluted escape plan.
The whole album is populated with people itching to get out of whatever situation they're in, mostly relationships. But unable or unwilling to make those leaps, they say hurtful things, they kick and they scratch, they lie to each other, they lie to themselves.
And maybe -- there’s that maybe again -- they expect too much. One of the key songs here, after all, is called “Impossible Love.”
Whether Nelson is singing about herself or recounting things she’s witnessed, and it’s hard to say most of the time, she takes the role of dry observer. She’s got the voice for it — more bemused than bored, less distant than dispassionate. Which is not to say passionless. She’s a sharp storyteller, a turner of phrases that can be at once glibly clever and deeply revealing.
In the relatively lush “Paying,” as with many of the songs nominally set in the bar, she tells -- or at least thinks of telling -- a swaggering swain that his drinks won’t be on the house anymore. But, uh, we’re not really talking about drinks, are we?
Producer Kelley Stoltz, who in his own albums deals in this kind of multi-hued melancholy, helps Nelson craft settings that enhance the scenes, like finely used lighting on a bare-bones theater stage. Nothing fancy, nothing excessive, but a rich variety of rock/Americana tones with little touches that make the tales pop -- the almost harp or harpsichord-like plucked lines at the beginning of “Impossible Love,” for example, giving way to a jaunty tune. “Snake Shake” is as bare-bones as it gets, the music as spare as the words, just three brittle lines of Nelson saying she’d rather be a snake in the desert than to “keep living like this.”
Cheerful, huh? But for all that, “Fast-Moving Clouds” is full of life, the work of an artist as engaged, and engaging, as her often-delightful tunes. It even ends on a note of optimism. Well, in context.
With the final song, sounding somewhere between Morrissey and the Go-Go's, she affirms that for whatever else might be going on, “We’re Not Dead.” And that’s a good place to start whatever comes next -- no maybes about it.