Ashes and hope: purgatory, Ca
Tracy Manuel was born and raised in the “other California” — Far NorCal, where the rivers run faster and the Internet runs slower. Starting her teenage years gigging in bars as a drummer, she went on to make a name for herself as a multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter in the local country music scene, sharing the stage and studio with members of hometown hero Merle Haggard’s band. Manuel also got an underage glimpse of the inner workings of Redding — prominent on many “Most Miserable Towns of America” lists — and a growing obsession with how it got that way.
In her new genre-bending, self-produced album, Purgatory, CA, Manuel paints an unflinching portrait of coming of age in contemporary rural America. She stands witness to a multiplicity of devastations, from self-sabotage to harmful ideologies to natural — and unnatural — disasters. With most of the songs written months before her hometown was ravaged by the 2018 Carr Fire, these tales of ash and disillusionment reach beyond one community’s tragedy to reveal a national malaise.
Sonically, Purgatory, CA could be slotted somewhere between rootsy alt-country and electric freak-folk, but its big heart and mongrel affinities for melding tech twists to kick-ass rhythm and blues push it well into uncharted terrain. Supported by pedal and lap steel from Keith Cary, Manuel’s a multi-tracked one-woman band — she plays acoustic and electric guitars, bass, and drums while juicing up her sound with a host of effects buried deep in the mix. The stacked and blended overdrives, rhythmic delays, and rattling percussion swirl into a psychedelic sheen, summoning luminous soundscapes from traditional song forms. It’s all in service to Manuel’s resonant alto, which spans moods from introspective hesitance to bar-band swagger.
She segues with ease from bluesy rockers (like the barbed, anti-capitalist “Bootstrap Nation”) to “Late Bloomer,” an unsparing meditation on adolescence based on an exploding electric guitar riff, antiquated satellite pings, and otherworldly pedal steel effects that could have been sent straight from Sputnik. The title track weaves delicate, vibrato-laden Telecaster in and out of lucid observations from a small-town ER waiting room, catalyzing a chorus that scorns empty promises of the future.
Barely-there fingerpicking propels the bitter, nostalgic “Chocolate Kerosene.” Surrounded by reverberant electric guitar, the braided harmonies of the bridge evoke a mournful, old-timey thrill. Then, solo for the final line, Manuel repeats the reluctant two-word mantra in a choked whisper:
Maybe someday in the push and pull
I’ll crawl out of this burning bowl
And wonder why I ever cared
When smoke rose in my rear-view mirror
But I care, I care, I care, I care…
Fans of Hayes Carll’s thick-and-fast lyrical sensibility will appreciate the wry blues-rocker anti-anthem “Tread On Us.” Subverting high-ABV country-rock tropes, each overdriven riff pounds bravado into a pathos that still sounds like joy. The more stripped-down songs are equally potent: The weary “Hope These Days,” with its post-mortem tempo, lagging snare snaps, and snaky guitar work, recalls Lucinda Williams, and Manuel sings the verses of “Deja Boom,” a prescient warning to her calamity-prone hometown, accompanied only by solo guitar before unleashing a riot of bass, drums, and slide. And despite its technological underpinnings, the album’s deep country roots and elegiac theme can claim close kinship with Iris DeMent’s classic lament, “Our Town.”
Far Northern California has never garnered much attention in the news or the arts — too rural, too down-and-out, too problematic. With this ground- and heartbreaking album, it’s safe to say that Manuel has put it on the media map, establishing herself as an artist of consequence.
She also continues to amplify her message. Following this record release and her work as co-creator of UC Davis Center for Design in the Public Interest’s Outpatient Radio — an award-winning documentary on chronic pain — Manuel begins a graduate fellowship in community development to study resiliency and healing in struggling rural communities, focusing on her own. Maybe the other California will find some hope these days after all.
…a rootsy alt-country mix that is creative and based in succinct songwriting. Manuel is excellent at layering, you find yourself forgetting she is playing all those instruments, not to mention her impressive singing… She is a formidable lyricist, full of wit, humor and crafty observations.
Her sound is about great hooks, mournful realities and heart-torn truths that swagger. A solid win, highly recommended.
5 Finger Review of Purgatory, CA