Three years ago Pasadena native Phoebe Bridgers was enjoying the buzz generated by her EP on Ryan Adams’ PaxAmericana label, “Killer,” and dreaming of touring and making a full-length solo album. Mission accomplished. The 23-year-old songwriter’s “Stranger in the Alps,” produced by Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska released by Dead Oceans in September, is one of this year’s more ear-tuggingly melodic pop releases. She’s been busily promoting it across the United States and Europe with club gigs, radio tours, and opening slots for musically sympatico headliners including Julien Baker, Conor Oberst, the War on Drugs, and Noah Gundersen, for whom she’ll open at the El Rey in LA Wednesday night.
It’s small surprise to those who recall seeing Bridgers perform on the back patio at the Echo’s Grand Ole Echo Sundays in Echo Park when she was still studying music at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. She had been writing songs since she was 10, and the tone-centered soprano was already unshakably composed onstage and politely, matter-of-factly focused on going wherever her music would take her.
“Georgia,” a staple of her live shows since those early days, and “Killer” are both reprised on “Stranger in the Alps.” The yearning acoustic sweetness of earlier renditions has been replaced by moodier, more spacious arrangements. Lead singles “Smoke Signals,” with its evocative, vibe-setting baritone guitar, and the deceptively lighthearted “Motion Sickness” (both co-written with drummer Marshall Vore) set the template for what follows: melancholy melodies and precisely detailed, sometimes weighty diaristic lyrics whose candid vulnerability is leavened by memorable pop hooks.
“There’s helicopters over my head/ Every night when I go to bed,” she observes on “Scott Street,” co-written with Vore and reportedly inspired by her current neighborhood in Silver Lake. Bike bells ring, toy trains whistle as the band gradually chimes in and a choir swells behind her guitar. “Spending money and I’ve earned it/ When I’m lonely that’s when I’ll burn it.”
“I have this dream where I’m screaming underwater/ While my friends are waving from the shore/ And I don’t need you to tell me what that means/ I don’t believe in that stuff anymore,” she warns on “Funeral,” about singing at a funeral “for a kid a year older than me” and recognizing that time is speeding past and all problems are relative. It could be a spirit-flattening dirge, but the combination of Bridgers’ heartfelt lyric and melody, fingerpicked acoustic guitar, violin and atmospheric electric accents makes it heart-piercingly beautiful. Like oft-cited influences Elliott Smith and Joni Mitchell, Bridgers’ songs extract light from shadows.
Phoebe Bridgers opens for Noah Gundersen at the El Rey, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 8; $19.50 advance/$23 day of show. phoebefuckingbridgers.com, theelrey.com