Tracy Shedd has been making music for well over a decade, but her latest release, Arizona, is an album shorn of the shredded slowcore distortion that's draped her pretty alto for much of her career. Who knew the girlish coo that glides so easily over the glacial electric guitar-scapes of her first four albums would sound even better against a couple of lightly sketched, finger-picked acoustics, garnished with occasional male harmony?
Of course, it's not such a girlish coo anymore, either. Shedd sounds a bit older and wearier beneath the weight of these very personal songs that generally reflect upon her time in Tucson. Arizona is centerpieced by three incredibly beautiful, delicate songs that exist in a rarefied state, like Laura's glass menagerie in the Tennessee Williams play.
On "Control," Shedd appeals to a disconsolate friend not to give up on life in such an honest, powerful way that it obliterates a thousand maudlin after-school TV specials. On her cover of the Magnetic Fields' "Candy," she sings with perfectly pitched pathos: "I know you'll find a better man/ They're all too easy to find/ and I'll go away somewhere/ And slowly lose my mind."
The coup de grace is "Boats," where Shedd sings over the most heartbreaking minor-key melody, "All it takes is a little smile, oh I need you more/ Tell your loved ones how you feel, while you still can." The spare treatments benefit these sweet, bare-wire sentiments that can get in your throat — at least that's the case for Shedd.
"I don't perform ["Control"], and I can barely perform 'Boats,'" Shedd confesses from her Raleigh home. "I see people crying, and it's just, 'I can't do this.' It's just so personal and especially 'Boats,' because my dad is in assisted living. It's kind of my mom and dad but how I think they need me but I need them more, and it's just really hard to perform."
Shedd's mother was a country singer herself and remains one of her best friends. Like many who've had a career in the music business, she tried to throw cold water on her child's ambitions.
"She knew it was hard when I was younger and was always afraid, 'Are you sure you don't want to get a regular job? It'll be a hard life for you,' but I can't imagine doing anything else," says Shedd, who performs with her husband, singer/guitarist James Tritten. "We were talking maybe we should open a bed and breakfast, but [I said] that would really just eat into going on the road and music. I want to be that 90-year-old couple at the farmers market playing music."
Tritten played alongside Shedd in her first high school band, Sella. "On and off, he would profess his love and I would be, 'I don't want to break up the band,'" says Shedd. "He was my best friend, and, you know, this is not going to work if we date in high school, like, come on."
They separated, did their own thing, and Tritten even considered leaving their hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. But he stayed, hanging on like an age-old John Cusack character. Some years later, Shedd had an opportunity to open for her favorite band, The Magnetic Fields. She knew Tritten had some friends who were drummers and called him to see if he could help her out. That's when he pulled out the figurative boombox.
"He goes, 'I can play.' I said, 'You don't play drums, you play guitar.' And he said, 'I'll be right over,'" Shedd chuckles, flying her "old softie" flag. "He comes to my apartment with a six-pack of Blue Moon, a hi-hat, and a drum. That's the end of the story. We were moving to Boston together a year later."
In a way, the seeds for Arizona were sown by the circumstances surrounding her previous release, 2010's EP88. The Tucson community radio station KXCI had asked Shedd to do some Christmas music. "I forgot how much I love piano," Shedd says. "That inspired me to write some songs on piano, and I just went from there."
That experience sparked the idea of pursuing Arizona with a stripped-down guitar rather than electric. You can also imagine how the dulcet tones of a piano led her to appreciate the sweet hum of an unadorned guitar.
"He said, 'It's easier and so pretty if we just drop the picks, everything,'" Shedd pauses, almost to acknowledge a passed friend. "I play classical [guitar] now. You never know, I might go back to electric, but right now I'm really enjoying the acoustic, the tone of it."
Arizona closes with a delicious, slowed-down version of Sonic Youth's "Teenage Riot," giving the alt-classsic the air of a distant roar, a sweet nostalgic sound calling listeners back to simpler times. "That's literally one of my favorite songs," Shedd says "I can't think of anything else I love more than to do a cover. Of course, you do it your own way, do something different. I certainly wasn't going to do it the same way."
That's quickly becoming her motto for each successive album.