Alpha Cat’s 2001 album “Pearl Harbor,” which will be re-released on Wednesday February 17th by Aquamarine Records, has a compelling and macabre backstory.
Singer-songwriter Elizabeth McCullough lived in Jersey City when she formed Alpha Cat in 1999. After a successful performance on December 7th of this year, she decided to write a song called “Pearl Harbor” in honor of Pearl Harbor Day, which would become the title track of an album.
The last masters of this album were delivered to their record label in Los Angeles on September 10, 2001. Their return flight to New York was the last to land at LaGuardia Airport when the first plane reached the world’s North Tower, Trade Center – on the day that would become known as 9/11.
“Aside from the fact that the cover featured an exploded WWII bomb and its unfortunate title, at the time of the first long-planned release of (‘Pearl Harbor’) there were few that were actually realized” McCullough recalled. “It contained sound effects of a falling glass building. All of this was just too much for the radio to even confirm the recording, let alone play it back. And that’s despite the fact that the subject was actually perfect – a journey through darkness back to light. But people couldn’t get over the cover, and so after all this work by everyone involved, it essentially fell on the scrap heap of history. “
When McCullough was preparing to release Alpha Cat’s album Thatched Roof Glass House in August 2019, she decided that Pearl Harbor deserved a second chance and decided to re-release it. But then COVID shut down practically everything, including the music industry. Meanwhile, McCullough spotted a demo tape from 1994 to 1995 when her heart was seriously broken by a failed relationship, and she decided two of those songs should be on the album as well.
Before McCullough decided to try her hand at music, she worked as a professional photographer and recorded many of the groundbreaking bands of the 1980s, including Hoboken’s Bongos. When former bongo Jim Mastro needed photos for his band Health & Happiness Show, he introduced McCullough to two members of television, Richard Lloyd and Fred Smith. Lloyd played on McCullough’s first studio demo and Smith produced the album, which is now released as “Pearl Harbor 2020”.
20 years ago, “Pearl Harbor” would have sounded nostalgic, if not retro. In 2021, it feels like an artifact unearthed from a time capsule.
Remember, this album was originally released at a time when rock music in NYC had gotten edgy, brittle and angular – think Strokes, Interpol, LCD Soundsystem. Alpha Cats’ warm tones, relaxed rhythms, and frequent guitar solos are reminiscent of the late 60s and early 70s. McCullough’s often jazzy and dreamy vocals are reminiscent of the young Joni Mitchell and Nancy Jeffries, singers of the pioneering Hoboken group The Insect Trust from the 1970s.
McCullough returns in Pearl Harbor on the same themes – that love is something we can survive, that healing is something we all need, that there is always daylight on the other side of the darkest emotions.
“Can’t find out, can’t find out,” she sings about a relationship in “Once Upon a Time”. In the dismissive “monster (can’t figure it out),” she complains, “expect me to listen, but all you do is stay.”
There’s a bridge-and-tunnel romance on Across the River Twice when McCullough sadly remarks, “Right now, Brooklyn seems so far away” from her Jersey City apartment.
Even the apparently optimistic “All Mine” tells a different story; The slow threnody complains, “The only options left are mine, mine, mine, the responsibility is me, me, me.”
The title track proves revealing; How do you write a love song about Pearl Harbor? In her liner notes, McCullough noted that the music for “Pearl Harbor” was written and arranged before it had a single lyrics or title. Then two things happened; She was treated badly in a relationship by a musician friend of hers, and a roommate tragically died.
McCullough recalls the details in the album’s liner notes: “When he got off the PATH train drunk in the early hours of the morning, his bag caught on the handle as he exited 14th Street station. And after they missed it, horrified passengers watched and called the conductor to STOP !!! – He reached his end when he hit the signal light as the train pulled into the tunnel. ”
“Pearl Harbor” has the undulating intensity and melody of the classic Fleetwood Mac, as it ruefully dismantles a failed and abusive relationship and uses the infamous Japanese attack as a metaphor.
“How did you find me, my Pearl Harbor, you caught me unsuspecting,” sings McCullough. “Pulled me out of the water as I spun wildly in my ocean / you came up to me …”
The two bonus demos that were remastered from old tapes include “(Something Have To Do With) Spring,” a simple love song with acoustic guitar accompaniment, and “Love With What You Have,” a song that describes the consequences of a relationship .
McCullough stated in her liner notes that the “perfect storm” of 2020 has forced reckoning and transformation in all of us, leading them to believe that it was finally time for the world to hear this album. And maybe, she added, “there is even a treasure in the end if we choose to look for it.”
“Pearl Harbor 2020” will be available on Wednesday, February 17th on alphacat.band.