Sara Cox: Firewater

There’s a line off Golden Smog’s Down by the Old Mainstream that encapsulates alt-country lyricism: “I’m lonely when you hate me, you hate me when I’m lonely, but mostly I’m just here to kick around.” It’s a realization, a resignation, that sometimes life just sucks, but it doesn’t have to get you down. And only a certain kind of voice — a Gary Louris, Jeff Tweedy, Gillian Welch, or a Sara Cox — can pull it off without sounding like a (gasp) country music singer.

Here on Cox’s Firewater [released back in 2000, I can’t find a place to stream this, though two other Sara Cox records are on Spotify. Here’s where you can buy the record on eBay], a sadness pervades, but it’s not the sadness of self-pity. It’s the sadness you feel when you go back and visit a house you haven’t lived in for a while: You can’t help but miss everything that went on there, even if it wasn’t always good times and smiles. Every song is about a relationship that didn’t, isn’t, or won’t work, but somehow that’s okay, because it has to be.

The opening “Waste of Time,” appearing first on the Area Code 207, Volume 1 compilation, breaks your heart right away: “Well I’ve been thinking ‘bout the way you left that day,” Cox sings plaintively, “making jokes like it was not the end. And if I thought of something smarter to say, maybe now we’d still be friends.” Does anyone not have a relationship lurking in their past that ended that way? Or maybe that’s the relationship you’re in right now.

Cox sings about making do with what you’ve got on her contribution to Area Code 207, Volume 2, “Sticking (Not Stuck).” “Although your mouth is now closed when we kiss,” she emotes. “I know your head’s still open. Despite all the details that somehow we missed, I know our hearts still need them, oh yeah.” And when she sings “oh yeah,” it doesn’t sound like filler.

“Sticking” also showcases Cox with a full backing band of talented musicians including Nate Schrock — whose brilliant slide is all over this record — and drummer Ginger Cote, quite adept at keeping Cox’s morphine-haze-like pace. That’s impressive, but so is “SUGAR,” one of two songs where Cox is all alone. “Baby, don’t let your sugar turn hard,” she advises in the chorus. “It’s too hard to taste that way.”

One gets the feeling that Cox has had plenty of reasons for letting her sugar turn hard, but she’s used her music as a salve, and we’re the luckier for it.

Sara Cox: Arrive

Independent girl

Sara Cox stirs the waters with Arrive

Sara Cox’s only previous solo effort, 2000’s EP Firewater, has been in heavy rotation ever since it showed up here at the Phoenix offices (rivaling only our contraband Raycharles Lamontagne disc and Spouse’s seminal Nozomi for repeated listens).

I am enthralled and engaged by Cox’s vocal range, mesmerized by her melancholy pathos, lulled by her sweet sentiment. It’s sort of pathetic, really. I find myself driving along in the car, getting all teary-eyed listening to “Fourth Child” or “No Harm,” manufacturing things for myself to feel all depressed about. There’s no doubt that music (second maybe only to smell) is a highly charged emotional trigger.

So, it should come as little surprise that I am wholly in love with Cox’s debut full-length, Arrive. I’ve even made a copy of it, so I can have it at work and at home and not have to worry about fighting over it with my wife.

Unlike the Coming Grass’s Transient, released earlier this year, almost all of the material on Arrive is being released for the first time, barring the title track, which appeared on GFAC 207, Vol. 3, and doesn’t pop up here until the very end. The material seems to have to come to Cox in a flood. I remember last winter, when she started talking about a solo effort, she said she was writing all kinds of new songs, “and some of them are even kind of happy.”

I think happy might be a relative term for her. These aren’t party songs, but they are, from time to time, upbeat; there is a pervasive feeling of impenetrable hope that keeps what are reflective and thoughtful songs from delving too far into the miasma of Nick Drake or David Gahan.

There are even likely singles here. The opening two numbers, “The Milk Song” and “Hit the Wall,” are adult-alternative radio naturals. With a full-band sound, poppy sentiment, and lyrics reminiscent of a school-girl’s diary, “Milk” sounds as if it could have come off the 10 Things I Hate About You soundtrack penned by Letters to Cleo. “Wall” has an ultra-catchy “ba-bah-da-da” vocal hook and the great line: “Why are you asking permission to be doing what it’s clear that you have already done.”

If the “band” sounds familiar, yes, it is largely the Coming Grass, dominated by the electric guitars of Nate Schrock and Stephan Jones, the drums of Ginger Cote, and pianos by Paul Chamberlain. The Jerks’ Carter Logan even makes appearances on the fiddle, of all things. Add backup vocals from Darien Brahms on a few songs and the line-up doesn’t look too different from a certain other female-vocalist’s recent solo album, Green Valentine. And, sure, there are similar sounds here — coming from what I guess you could consider Portland’s emerging “session musicians,” but, like Valentine, Cox’s Arrive is unmistakably driven by the lead vocalist and songwriter.

Where Brahms led with her sass and new-found bravado, melding honky-tonk with jazz and Latin flavors — and having a ton of fun — Cox leads with her money voice, sculpted to evoke a dainty girl and strong-armed woman, a nurturing mom and an independent gal.

“Look Up” is the whole package. It opens with a simple lead on the congas, a percussion instrument I’ve never really been that fond of in Western music, but here it works. Or perhaps Cox’s voice is just so good here that they could be pounding on a dumpster and I’d be happy. I remember standing next to Nate during the show at SPACE where Cox first played this live. He was entranced like a 16-year-old hippy girl seeing Trey in the flesh for the first time. We both agreed it was a phenomenal song. But think about that. By that point he’d probably heard her rehearse it a hundred times. Still, he couldn’t contain his inner fan.

When Cox reaches up for the falsetto chorus, it’s a bona fide religious experience. “And the sky still glows even though you’re looking at your feet/ Kicking down at the ground.” Darien’s singing backup here, really grounding the harmonies. And what a song of hope tempered with realism: “No one’s gonna reach in and grab you/ The world’s just going to keep spinning round.” Unless you get up off your sorry ass and do something about it. Otherwise, “One day, you’ll wake up to be 40/ 40 years of shutting down.”

Not that Cox needs a band to prop her up. “Confession #87” is stripped down and shows that she has no problem convincing with just a guitar and her remarkable voice. The lyrics are an interesting half-feminist screed: “I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but most days I can’t tie my shoes/ And most days I can hardly choose/ I confess, I do need you/ Does that make me not independent?”

An interesting question that. Being independent is this lauded trait in “strong” women. But what’s wrong with loving someone to the point that you can’t imagine life without them? Isn’t there a depth of emotion there that’s enviable?

I love the sarcasm laden in the repeated phrase, “well now girls, we’re independent.” Paired with “Devotion” and “Single Girl” (where we’re asked “have you noticed that most things come in pairs?”) there is a pattern of deep-seated familial love broadcast through a picture of what life might be like without the devoted husband and kids. Could be I’m a sucker for that sort of thing right now.

Oh, and there’s flexibility here, too. How about “Stir the Waters,” a “Watching the Detectives” rhythm paired with an “Octopus’s Garden” chord progression in the chorus. The first listen on this one is a little strange — talk about white man’s reggae — but it really grows with repeated listens. It’s super smooth, has Cox singing at some of her lowest on the record (echoed by a falsetto of herself, in impressive fashion) and all these crazy four-note electric fills.

This is where you recognize that Cox’s musicality is being repeatedly emphasized by Nate Schrock’s growing talents as producer. The levels are just completely on, and everything hovers in the background behind Sara, as though thrown into shadow by the light she casts. And there’s always an egg-rattle finish, or tossed-off cymbal, or rumbling, tuning instruments as intro keeping each song from sounding too polished. Check the effect on Chamberlain’s piano for “Paper Cup.” It’s like a ghost, fuzzy at the edges, halting, disinterested. The only choice I might argue with is the brief echoing added to lines in Cox’s fine a capella version of Richard Buckner’s “Fater,” which precedes “Arrive.” A song that aims for purity seems just that bit marred. Maybe that’s the intention.

By the time “Arrive” does come, it’s simple, familiar, climbing four chords are a fond farewell. “I hate it when you’re gone/Don’t go.” I’m not going anywhere.