There’s a pronounced tendency in pop for its female practitioners to be defined by association, and such is the fate of Sarabeth Tucek, abbreviated to a three letter monogram for her return to the live fray following a decade’s absence from recording. The implication, it seems, is that the patronage of male artists, especially those of the vintage that clog the pages of Mojo, somehow legitimises their talent, while simultaneously diminishing it by implied contrast. It’s a process that does Tucek few favours.

Framed by black and amber in the hearth-like surrounds of Salford’s Eagle Inn, a half-masked band clustered about her, tonight she cuts her own figure, severed from the presences that are invoked in her biography: Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Bill Callahan of Smog, and Bob Dylan, for whom she played as support in 2007.

On the opening evening of a tour to promote her third LP, Joan Of All, Tucek is flanked by producer Luther Russell, a moustached counterpoint of pigeon-nodding enthusiasm to her own reined-in cool. Whereas her demonstrativeness is limited to little more than a raised finger on the hand coiled nonchalantly around her microphone, or a jacket shrugged off in acknowledgement of the humidity of close confines, Russell could almost be displaced from the backroom of a Fylde coast pub in the 1970s, with his flicked-back locks and his amenable lack of reserve.

SBT. Credit: Paula Bullwinkel

SBT. Credit: Paula Bullwinkel.

Opening to the gentle waves of a lazily encroaching tide, Tucek’s set seems to gravitate to the coastal extremities of the United States – the East Coast of her early life, and the West Coast which brought her voice to the fore. More than anything, it is these vocals which shape the breadth of her set, moving easily from the half-whispers of a Nico, to a Hope Sandoval smokiness and – on occasion – even the melancholy warmth of Karen Carpenter. It’s as though she’s a medium wave receiver, channelling the US college radio of the 1980s and the way that bands such as R.E.M. chimed with their 60s forebears.

On first acquaintance, this approach works most effectively on tracks with the resonant directness of The Gift, a single whose kaleidoscope jangle pulls the listener into its half-familiar circle with a tidal ebb and flow that its lyric, whose shifting phraseology evoking “waves (that) collide into you”, calls readily to mind. It’s perhaps the set’s most obviously beat happening, and an early highlight.

If The Gift breezes in on a breeze of West Coast sunshine, 13th St. #2 has its foundations in East Coast city living. Explicitly referencing Lou Reed’s Coney Island Baby, it’s the song that’s made most obviously in the image of The Velvet Underground; Ryan Rogers’ Mellotron and Rhii Williams’ Mo Tucker-esque drums both tightening and propelling its dynamics, tethering it to the very edge of chaos as Tucek at its centre gathers memories of her “old front stoop” from the frayed ends of recollection.

SBT. Credit: Paula Bullwinkel

SBT. Credit: Paula Bullwinkel.

Other songs, perhaps, are less composition than atmosphere. The Tunnel, for instance, is more reminiscent of a slow-dissolve shot of Julee Cruise, fading into the black in Twin Peaks’ Roadhouse than something akin to Brill Building pop.

Even so, it’s apparent that, by the stripped down encore of Stranger Of The Night, Tucek has gone some distance towards out-stripping her associations. When she sings searchingly “I’ve left the ending up to you”, it could almost be herself she’s addressing. Transcending her biography, at the last, her voice is very much her own.

By Desmond Bullen

Main image by Paula Bullwinkel


For tour details, click here.