Sarah Bethe Nelson spent years as a bartender in the raucous, exuberant San Francisco nightlife, so you better believe she’s not going to put up with your bullshit. As a former bartender myself, Nelson’s first single “Paying” immediately drew me in. On a song paced for a slow dance, she lays out exactly why her ex no longer gets to flash her secret smiles and get his drinks on the house. Nelson uses the insider atmosphere of “knowing the bartender” as a framework for a relationship’s demise with dispassionate precision. “It’s funny that I used to think about you as the light on the leaves,” she muses, not with sadness but a wonderment at her own blindness.
The rest of her debut record Fast-Moving Clouds is just as full of striking realizations and vignettes painted in expert strokes. Even on an album full of emotional vulnerability, there’s no weakness or self-pity. Nelson brings an old-world confidence, almost a bust-through-the-saloon-door swagger to her suburban ennui. Over a slippery bass line on “Black Telephone” she compares seeing her crush to “falling into a cactus tree.” The title track, true to its name, speeds along like a cruise through a desert highway, counting dusty miles but never reaching civilization, just like the relationship it describes. “You’ll pull my hair but not hold my hand,” she complains with incredulity on “Impossible Love,” but as she eviscerates the men who never live up to her expectations, her detachment remains.
This isn’t really a break up album even if it’s sad. Nelson manages to narrate what’s going on around her without inhabiting the pain of the moment, a separation that works phenomenally on the record. In this way, Fast-Moving Clouds retains a hint of laughter even when telling the most gut-wrenching stories. It’s like Nelson was thinking to herself, “This is gonna make a good story someday,” during each painful memory, and the record’s existence is the triumph of those realizations.
Fast-Moving Clouds is an album made for and by musicians; Garett Goddard, Dylan Edrich and Kelley Stoltz are all fixtures in the Bay area’s local rock scene. It is, eventually, a rock record; “Every Other Sunday” bleeds into the kind of indolent psychedelia that permeated San Francisco decades ago, while opening track “Start Somewhere” riffs and kicks with a surfy catchiness that’s impossible to label as anything else. And ultimately, it’s the epitome of what we call “a grower.” Fast-Moving Clouds drew me in a little more with every listen. Stream it below.
Fast-Moving Clouds is out 3/10 on Burger Records.