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Killing us softly 

More subtle than strident, Blame Sally's intriguing songs still pack a punch

Lou Reed says Sally can't dance, a Canadian punk band named itself I Hate Sally, and now San Francisco's Blame Sally is carrying on the tradition.

"Poor Sally, she gets a lot of crap," admits Monica Pasqual, whose gifted acoustic pop quartet will play a benefit for Colorado Springs' Women's Resource Agency next week.

So who's Sally, and what's wrong with her?

"Well, Sally was really our friend ..."

Was?

"No, she is," Pasqual insists, "but she doesn't live here in any more, she's back in England. She's just one of those nice English ladies who apologizes for anything and all the time, just, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry.' So you can just blame her, she'll take it!"

While Sally's role doesn't extend beyond the band's name, a number of other characters do come into play on the band's latest album, Night of 1000 Stars. The title track, most notably, tells the story of an Afghan war veteran who ends up killing his wife. Pasqual says it was based on the wave of Fort Bragg murders back in the summer of 2002, when the wives of four soldiers were killed in the space of six weeks.

"I just tried to imagine it from the point of view of the returning veteran who has post-traumatic stress and comes home and his wife is leaving him and he snaps," say Pasqual. "I'm much more interested in the human story than in hitting you over the head with, like, 'This is wrong!' I'd rather get at it in a different way, I guess. It's obvious what I believe, but I would rather give it to you in a more subtle way."

An earlier Blame Sally song and video, "If You Tell a Lie," brought the group an unprecedented amount of attention due to exposure through Neil Young's "Living With War" Web site: "It was No. 2 out of hundreds and hundreds of songs on his site for, I think, a year and a half, so it was pretty popular."

So what do Pasqual and her colleagues have against war?

"Yeah, 'Pro-women, anti-war, what's wrong with these people?'" she wonders. "We just did a benefit for war veterans, actually, it was for the VA. We didn't sing ["Night of 1000 Stars"], though. We figured it might be a little too traumatic for all the people with PTS there."

Déjà Vu all over again

Blame Sally's origins go back nine years, to a point when four Bay Area singer-songwriters channeled already-promising careers into one collective, harmony-drenched effort. Comparisons to classic-era Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young aren't uncommon (one critic said 2007's Severland was Blame Sally's Déjà Vu). Indigo Girls and the Dixie Chicks also get cited, although Blame Sally's music — while no less accessible — is arguably more nuanced. (Think Shawn Colvin back in her "Sunny Came Home" period.)

All four are gifted singers and instrumentalists, with guitarist Renée Harcourt bringing an affinity for '70s folk rock, former Springs resident Jeri Jones deftly switching between mandolin and dobro, and Pam Delgado playing djembe and other percussion instruments.

Pasqual, meanwhile, brings a classical influence to the mix. As a piano performance major, her intended career was set back by a case of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which turned out to be linked to celiac disease.

"I had been on this trajectory — I imagined that I was going to be a concert pianist — and then at some point while I was in college, I was so sick and in so much pain that I just couldn't get better technically.

"It was like one of those shattered dream things. I just left the whole thing. I couldn't stand to hear classical music, I just really left. It was probably seven years later that I started to write songs, and I definitely bring a classical sound, I think, into the music."

Weeping woman

More recently, Pasqual has taken to playing the accordion, but not — Lawrence Welk and Li'l Wally fans will be sad to hear — because of any abiding interest in polka. ("I'm more from the French School, I think.")

Produced by Lee Townsend, whose credits range from Rinde Eckert to Elvis Costello, Night of 1000 Stars is a richly textured showcase for a band with a surplus of good songwriters.

Still, Blame Sally does play the occasional cover: Pasqual first heard "La Llorona," a traditional song about Spain's archetypal "weeping woman," on a Joan Baez record. (The group got to play it at a recent show with the folk legend in front of some 12,000 people.)

"La Llorona is an archetypal figure in Mexican folklore," says Pasqual. "She's called 'the weeping woman,' and the story was that she's a beautiful peasant girl who's seduced by a Spanish landowner and has children with him. Then he abandons her and, in a fit of despair, she goes to the river and drowns her children and herself. And legend has it that the ghost of La Llorona walks along the river banks searching for her children."

So Blame Sally likes happy songs, right?

"Well, some," says Pasqual. "Actually, Renée writes really happy love songs and great breakup songs."

bill@csindy.com

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