Image © Hungry Dog Records 2003
Image © Flying Sparks Records 2002
Image © Flying Sparks Records 2001
Image © Stephen Lambe 2004
Image © Stephen Lambe 2004
Thea and Jim
Image © Stephen Lambe 2004
(16 January 2004)
Born in Oxfordshire, British singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore
has attracted considerable attention to herself over the
last few years in the UK music media with her brand of
witty, acidic folk-rock songs. Clearly from the same
school of writing as Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, it is her
lyric writing, examining the seamier side of relationships
and political complacency with equal venom.
Though each of the three albums covered here have their
moments musically, it is her latest album Avalanche
(Hungry Dog Records (UK) YRGNUHA1, 2003)
that has thrust her into the top 40 racks, and deservedly
so, as it marks a move away from the relatively specialised
folk-rock of her earlier releases into something more varied
and commercial, without losing any of her wit or punch
lyrically. Her other major asset is her voice,
natural-sounding and pure with more than a touch of
velvet. She also manages to sing in an English accent
much of the time without it sounding too mannered.
Avalanche kicks off well with the treated
drums and insistent guitars of "Rags and Bones."
"Have you heard" slows things down with Robbie
McIntosh's guitar wailing over an acidic lyric.
The catchy "Juliet" with its retro male backing
vocals is the first suggestion of a newly commercial
approach. "Avalanche," however, with it's treated
guitar and vocals is pure Tori Amos, but none the
worse for it, before a haunting keyboard and cello
riff takes the song over. "Mainstream" rocks things
up in angry Bob Dylan style with another great chorus
while the lovely ballad "Pirate Moon" is an utter
"Apparition 13" hypnotises with an insistent vocal
and keyboard melodies, while "Razor Valentine" swings
edgily like Tom Waits played at 45 rpm. "God Knows"
is a purer piece, giving Thea's voice the chance
to do something pure and folky, over a percussive
backing, while "Heads Will Roll" rocks things up
in a bluesy stomp. The ethereal "Indian Summer"
is another wonderful song, and "The Crack” provides
an acoustic, melancholic album closer.
This is a wonderful collection of songs--funny,
sad and angry. Musically, it provides some of Thea's
most delightful melodies and her musicians provide some
inventive instrumentation to bring the songs to life.
This is certainly her most mature and varied
Songs From The Gutter.
Not that there is much wrong with the quickly
recorded Songs From the Gutter (Sparks Records
(UK) TDBCD066, 2002). However, the songs have a rather
more rough-hewn quality and the arrangements are less
sophisticated, relying on a very live-sounding,
straight-ahead rock approach that may well appeal
more to some listeners.
"Down to No-where" opens with a cute synth riff,
before growing into a slide-guitar dominated
sing-a-long, while "When did you get so safe"
is a rocky stomp. "Tear it all down" continues
the up-tempo mood in melodic style. "The dirt
is your lover now" is slower and moodier, while
"I dreamed I saw St. Augustine" has a gentle
ethereal quality. Several songs on this album sound
like REM, and "Lip Reading" is one, while "Heart
String Blues" sounds like Springsteen in the verse,
before a surging chorus. "Mud on my Shoes" is a piece
of fun bluegrass, recorded live by the sound of it,
while the acoustic "Water in the Sky" and the
relaxing "And we’ll dance" complete the album.
While not having the depth or variation of
Avalanche, this brief collection of ten
songs is still an excellent introduction to Thea’s
work. The copy reviewed also comes with an excellent
11-track bonus CD, showcasing earlier rare and
unreleased work. It certainly keeps up the
standard of the main albums, especially the
rocky opener "Hydrogen," the up-tempo "Red Farm"
and the hypnotic folk ballad "December in New
York." "Gun Cotton" is as close as Thea will
get to heavy rock, and she handles it impressively,
while "Don’t Set Foot over the Railway Track" is
an intriguing excursion into spoken word territory.
"Lavender Cowgirl" sounds like Aimee Mann at her
quirkiest, and "Straight Lines" is an impressive
Rules for Jokers.
Back another year for a brief word about Rules for
Jokers (Flying Sparks Records (UK) TDBCD056, 2001).
As with her two most recent offerings, this album is
produced by Nigel Stonier, and it relies either on
a basic acoustic folk or blues-rock instrumentation
to illuminate Thea’s songs. As a result, the album's
thirteen tracks sound a little one-dimensional. In
addition, some of the songs themselves don't seem
to quite as good as her latter two albums. Nonetheless,
the lyrics are as strong--and acidic--as ever,
especially on the gentle "The Things We Never
Said," while "Seen it all before" rocks impressively.
"Benzedrine" again shows similarities with Aimee Mann,
as well as featuring some excellent rock cello.
Those delving into Thea's work for the first
time should probably start with Avalanche,
as it is superior in both its song-writing and its
instrumentation, but whichever album you choose,
this is an artist improving with every album. Try
her out.--Stephen Lambe
(04 July 2004) Acoustic Band Live at the Pillar Room, Cheltenham Town Hall, 03 July 2004. Considering the international success of her breakthrough album Avalanche, it was a particular delight to see Thea in such an intimate setting as the charming Pillar Room in the lovely town hall building, as part of Spa town Cheltenham’s fringe festival. Though on recent albums she has used a variety of instruments to illustrate her songs, from rock guitar to electronics, acoustic renditions of many of her pieces seem perfectly natural.
As a result, this was a relaxed and effective evening with her band--producer and multi-instrumentalist Nigel Stonier (acoustic bass, acoustic guitar, piano, harmonical, melodical, vocals), and talented young blues player Jim Kirkpatrick (acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, dobro, vocals) swapping instruments--not to mention jokes--with ease and dexterity. Thea herself seemed to be at ease and to be having fun. Her warm, expressive voice was in fine form, note perfect, in fact and she introduced many of her songs with a customary --and very English--self-depreciating wit. Despite the acidity of many of her songs, so came across as charming and funny.
The set was made up of about half of her wonderful Avalanche album, some good older material, a couple of brand new songs and a few wittily chosen covers. Up-tempo songs like "Rags and Bones" and "Have You Heard" contrasted beautifully with the gentle "God Knows" with Thea tackling a grand piano slightly nervously. Other highlights included the love song (with an edge) "Razor Valentine" and her two splendid singles "Mainstream" and "Juliet" (a minor UK hit) played back to back towards the end of her 80-minute performance.
Playing bass at the beginning of the set, Nigel showed what a talented multi-instrumentalist he is with some fine acoustic guitar and piano later on, as well as some well-placed harmony vocals, while Jim excelled with some splendid slide work. The covers are particularly worthy of note. "Bad Moon Rising" sounded for all the world like a Thea original, as did the Paula Abdul hit "Straight Up" given the deadpan Thea treatment, and, as a first encore, a charming "The Lady is a Tramp."
This was all memorable stuff, generously received by a small but appreciative audience. Not only did it whet the appetite for seeing her in a full electric band setting, but it superbly illustrated the quality of her remarkable song writing, and sent us back to listen to her albums with renewed interest.--Stephen Lambe