Alpha Cat aka Elizabeth McCullough is re-releasing Alpha Cat’s first full length LP, 2001’s Pearl Harbor album in an expanded edition as pearl harbor 2020 on February 17, via Aquamarine Records. The original album was recorded over a two-year span produced by Fred Smith of Television and McCullough. pearl harbor 2020 features two bonus tracks recorded and produced by Elizabeth at home in her apartment.
McCullough had this to say about this about the album’s title track:
“What will it take for us to see that the world we are a part of is a metaphor for what’s going on inside of us? And that our healing, and we all in some way need it (!) requires us to look back at our past in order to heal our future?
“The underlying premise behind the writing of the lyrics for the song ‘Pearl Harbor’ was fairly straightforward: if Pearl Harbor was named so before it was bombed, wasn’t it because there were actual pearls in the harbor? And assuming that to be true, what would it take to get back to a place where Pearl Harbor became once again a place about treasure, rather than destruction? The Alpha Cat song itself, well that process was a bit more complex, shall we say…
“The only song I have ever done where the entire musical portion was written well before the song itself took shape is ‘Pearl Harbor.’ In fact, the music was completely written, arranged, and memorized two years before there were any lyrics at all, period.
“That is because three events had to take place in my life before I even had an inkling of what the words to this mysterious song might be.
“First, I had a brief dating experience with another singer-songwriter who had had a big hit in the mid 90’s, whose songwriting I had long admired, and whom I had met before, though at that point when I told him how much I loved his work, he completely blew me off. But for some reason, at a party in lower Manhattan in July of 1999, with Real Boy in the can (self confidence?) and Fred Smith (validity?) at my side, I had suddenly become quite attractive to him. An evening’s make-out session led to another date on July 16, (which I remember solely because it was the day JFK Jr. died. My connection to him is yet another story for another time) a date (!) for which he had to come to Jersey City to meet me at the Sand Bar, (look it up) and we ended up first at my house for food, more of what had happened during our last encounter, and then a car ride back to the Path station, where I had to lend him a dollar for the train (which, though he promised to, he never repaid!) As he kissed me goodnight (goodbye!) we made seemingly concrete plans for the near future. These plans never came to fruition, and when I confronted him later that year (after event #2, see next) to scold him for his treatment of me, I had to remind him that I was a person, and that he had hurt me… his response was: ‘Do you know how many girls I kissed that week?’ Seriously. At least I got quite a few songs out of that close encounter. And also very curiously, he fully believed that his songs were not about him. When they so obviously were! And he still may… Strange.
“Second, on September 11, 1999, my roommate was killed. As he was drunkenly exiting the PATH train in the wee hours of the morning, his bag got caught on the train handle as it left the 14th Street station. And after running alongside it as horrified passengers looked on, calling to the conductor to STOP!!! – he met his end when he hit the signal light as the train entered the tunnel. My other roommate answered the call from the NYPD at 6 am; “we believe your roommate has been killed, but it is difficult to determine, (because of the damage done to his face) could we come down and identify the body?” Luckily, Michael had a much stronger stomach than me, and though I accompanied him to the morgue, he did that scary and disturbing work for the both of us. And I know it wasn’t easy.
“And finally the trigger! A gig on December 7, 1999! And I said to my band – and myself: “I’m going to write a song for Pearl Harbor day!” And then it was easy.
“All this is a long-winded way of saying that things don’t just ‘happen,’ they unfold. That the master for the Pearl Harbor album was dropped off at the manufacturer in LA on September 10, 2001 after two years of recording, and that my return flight was the last to land at JFK – at the exact moment the first plane hit the North tower of the World Trade Center, is relevant to Alpha Cat’s story, but perhaps not many others’.
“Aside from the fact that there was an exploded bomb from WWII on the cover and its unfortunate title, there was something few even realized at the time of its initial, long planned release that October; that it contained sound effects of a glass building falling down. This was all simply too much for radio that October to even acknowledge the record, let alone play it. And this despite the fact that the theme was actually perfect – a journey through darkness back to light; but people couldn’t get past the cover, and so after all that work, by everyone involved, especially the band, it essentially fell to the scrap heap of history.
“But in August of 2019, I listened to it anew, as I was preparing to launch Thatched Roof Glass House, and decided it deserved another chance, and that I was going to re-release it. This with of course no inkling of the coming pandemic and the nightmare which 2020 would become. And another thing; my motivations had shifted 180, because in 2001, I wanted to be famous, and now I realize that that isn’t what I want at all, and that it was never about me. And something curious happened: because I knew that I was going to put out Pearl Harbor again, I did virtually no promotion for it, but as I watched the stats play out for TRGH, I began to notice that in spite of having not been promoted, Pearl Harbor was getting more streams globally than the other two records combined. Ah ha, so maybe people want to hear this now, now that we are far enough from 9/11, the “new Pearl Harbor,” that its metaphors are now being received, and hungrily consumed…
“And then this fall something else from my past reemerged: two 4 track cassette recordings (mixed to stereo of course) of songs from 1994, the year my heart was broken so completely that from that point I have yet to write a song like “(Something having to do with) Spring” that so purely and transparently (naively? I don’t know) speaks of love. In fact the only one. And in the process of looking for one of these songs I found another, which addresses the aftermath of the inspiring relationship. Perfect in their raw imperfection, after Brett Thorngren’s mastering, to me these songs are truly uncut gems…
“So it seems this album’s time may have finally arrived; 20 years later. But perhaps more significantly, because everyone on this planet right now has been forced to navigate such extremes of loss and change – and if they’ve been paying attention, also watching the process of, and undergoing, a profound transformation. A transformation that the perfect storm of 2020 has not politely asked, but demanded of each and every one of us. And maybe there’s even a treasure after all of this, if we choose to see it???”
Elizabeth and Alpha Cat first surfaced on the American music scene with the EP Real Boy. A friendship with Television bassist Fred Smith led to him producing a demo, which became the 1999 release. With only a handful of copies sent to radio stations, Real Boy ended up on the CMJ National Top 5 Add Charts twice, receiving more adds than such formidable offerings as Beck’s Midnight Vultures, and Metallica’s S&M. It went on to spend six weeks in the national airplay charts.
When the follow up, Pearl Harbor, was re-released in early 2002, it received significant airplay on college radio, and won multiple “best of the year” awards. And years after its release McCullough moved to L.A. on New Year’s Eve 2005 to record her next album with drummer Jason Smith. Smith hooked her up with guitarist Doug Pettibone (Lucinda Williams, John Mayer), bassist Reggie McBride, (Stevie Wonder, Funkadelic) and in 2007 seven vocal and 15 instrumental tracks were completed but due to a profound emotional and psychological breakdown, McCullough was unable to complete the record. She would return to these recordings some 12 years later mixed by engineer Brett (Cosmo) Thorngren and release them as the album Thatched Roof Glass House.