“Wichita Rx” – Alpha Cat
A laid-back strummer in 3/4 time, “Wichita Rx” has an old-time sensibility and attention to craft. Take the opening lines of the first verse as an example. Elizabeth McCullough (who does musical business as Alpha Cat) sings, in her resonant alto, “Somewhere past Wichita/That girl caught up with you.” Already there’s so much going on! Listen to how she adds a melismatic syllable to the end of Wichita, subtly complicating the campfire melody; listen next to how she takes the three syllables of “up with you” at a different pace than the three syllables at the end of the first line (“Wichita”). So, these first two lines scan the same but are sung differently–another subtle and fetching complication. These may be tiny things but they fully impact the musical impression. That’s what I mean by attention to craft. Then, ponder the words themselves, which achieve something you don’t hear in a lot of 21st-century songs: an implied, engaging story from the get-go. Eight words and we already know there are two characters on a road trip, probably a long one, and that the narrator’s companion is tracked down by a woman who seems at best an annoyance, at least to the narrator. We get action, we get drama, and McCullough has been singing for all of six seconds.
And then, a turn: after that tantalizing start and that lived-in musical setting, McCullough keeps the story ever so slightly out of reach and the music subtly off-kilter. With a mix of evocative lines and elusive phrases, we keep circling back to “that girl from Wichita” who now is “using up your time.” The story eludes precise comprehension, but the weary resignation of the narrator implies a less than happy ending. “The mirror she broke/But she never did lie,” she sings, a succinct but enigmatic epigram. All the while, McCullough has been specializing in expressive musical sidesteps, such as you can hear on the word “wire” (0:23) or on the phrase “finds you” (0:58), or, maybe best of all, in the way she finishes the phrase “another one’s eyes” (2:23). Combined with the song’s fill-in-the-blanks story line, such touches cumulatively transform what might appear to a casual listener as a leisurely-paced slice of Americana into a mysteriously potent journey. Which, I might guess, the two characters in the song themselves had, one way or another.
“Wichita Rx” is a track from the EP Venus Smile… retrograde, which is a remastered version of the EP Venus Smile. The original Venus Smile was released in June 2022, while the remastered “retrograde” version came out in October. McCullough’s recording history with Alpha Cat goes back to 1999, with the release of the album Best Boy, which made something of an impact in the college radio world. Alpha Cat was initially a band, but became a solo project. McCullough was, sadly, sidetracked for more than 10 years by serious depression. As a result, the Venus Smile recordings date originally back to music written in the ’00s.