Bay Area singer-songwriter Sarah Bethe Nelson’s multiple albums of balladry and pop chart an emotional wave of the multifarious and sometimes tumultuous changes of the area’s landscape. Her latest is no exception. Enter Mental Picture, a collection of aftershock spectral tunes ghosting in the aura of the recent age spinning out from the contradictions of Nelson's steely reserve and melancholy fragility. If past efforts highlighted a certain zeal for the times, Mental Picture, while no less resolute in its approbation of the charms of this particular wasteland, definitely adds the haunt of eyes that have seen a grimness and dared to wink back at it. Think later Townes Van Zandt self-deprecation jolted through the afterglow of Stoned And Dethroned horizon-watching.
What began as a way to stay sane in the early days of the pandemic when studios remained shuttered, the album was recorded in Nelson’s own Mission District living room with long-time creative partner Rusty Miller, as well as at the home of compatriot Doug Hilsinger—who both not only play on the album, but also claim co-producing, engineering and mixing roles—Mental Picture is an incredibly homegrown, early Smog-like affair. “It was a natural thing that grew slowly out of a pretty dark and unpredictable time,” she describes. “Music was something positive we could build together so, naturally, that’s what we did.”
The vibes flit between tracks like opener "Five Lovin' Days" and the later "Night Birds," whose bare-bones gated, archaic stripped-down electro-acoustic production prefigures a post-apocalyptic cosmic country akin to Emmylou Harris strumming in a bomb shelter. Fuller tracks like "Better Off Dead" and ringer "I Can Just Leave" never shrug off the radioactive buzz, but coalesce into soulful stretches akin to Spiritualized through a ham radio. All paths lead to the title track, which closes out the album with an exhale of a journey long traveled that continues to unfurl. It’s a deserted landscape of echo alongside swaths of comet-like guitars burning through the night sky—perhaps with the tinges of a sunrise to come.
“The idea of forming a mental picture comes up constantly in conversation; we see things we want to see. We ask for clarification. We wonder how we can show what’s in our minds to the world. We try, and hope we’ve done our best.” Nelson thought it made sense to close the record that way, an opportunity to leave the conversation open and allow the listener to choose their own adventure.
There's a certain kismet to Nelson’s latest album releasing on fledgling San Francisco label Speakeasy Studios SF. Label chief Alicia Vanden Heuvel is part of the very fabric of Nelson’s collective—she even lends her vocals to aforementioned "Night Birds," birds of a feather, naturally. It’s difficult for Nelson to even remember a time in San Francisco without her. They first played together at The Independent. “I was scared to death, waiting in the wings to go on with my band, Alicia walked by and gave me this look that just said everything was exactly how it should be, that I was supposed to be there fronting a band, showing the world my tunes. I never forgot that.”
The feeling of homecoming here parallels the intimacy of Mental Picture and echoes the burnished survival instincts of the locals still standing and weaving tales together. But don't get
this wrong, there's also a universality here that’s unchained by any particularities to a certain time and place. Everyone is in the Zone, after all.