CD Review: Thea Gilmore - "Avalanche" (2003)
Thea Gilmore? Never heard of her!
She has been hailed by many as arguably one of the most intelligent songwriters in Britain today, but I'll bet few have heard of Thea Gilmore. Whilst record companies push over-hyped pap that they know the vast majority of the public will happily bleat along to, there are still plenty of singer-songwriters out there who haven't sold themselves out in favour of corporate mush and are quite content to write and perform some superbly crafted and performed material. By virtue of her uncompromising commentaries on life and what passes for culture nowadays, coupled with often vitriolic delivery and married to splendidly different yet catchy arrangements, Ms Gilmore climbed to the very top of the pile of independent singer-songwriters whilst she was still in her early twenties, "Avalanche" being number five in an incredible line-up of self-penned albums. Whilst she's not an "angry young woman" in the Alanis Morrisette mould, she manages to convey a sense of anger, disgust and loathing through her lyrics rather than bawling and screaming her way through a song - which gives her social criticism much more credence.
Don't take my word for it on how good Thea Gilmore is, though - ask any music critic worth his or her salt and chances are they'll point you in the same direction. For me, Radio 2's Bob Harris is right more often than not in terms of steering me towards artists that I wouldn't have otherwise come across - and he loves to play Thea Gilmore's material. Apart from playing plenty of tracks from her back catalogue, she's also played live in his studio several times over the years, and everything I've heard her perform backs up the description in my first paragraph.
Brought up on a mixture of Dylan, The Beatles and Elvis Costello, Thea Gilmore started writing poetry at the age of 15 as a release from her reaction to the breakup of her parents' marriage. At 19 she released her first album, "Burning Dorothy" to critical acclaim but no commercial success, a pattern that continued with 2000's "The Lipstick Conspiracies", 2001's "Rules For Jokers" and 2002's "Songs From The Gutter" (originally an Internet-only release) - each successive project receiving plenty of plaudits but little else. "Avalanche" netted her something of a breakthrough in that "Top of the Pops" featured the video for the single "Mainstream", both this and "Juliet (Keep This In Mind)" getting some reasonable radio airplay at the time. The producer on "Avalanche", Nigel Stonier, who also provides back up on Moog, guitars and Wurlitzer, became Mrs Thea Gilmore some years ago. In 2004, Joan Baez invited Thea Gilmore to open for her tour and the latter reciprocated the favour, asking Baez to appear on her latest album "Liejacker". For someone who clearly relishes in her self-assumed role as social commentator, Thea's take on The Buzzcocks' "Ever Fallen In Love" on her 2005 album "Loft Music" (her collection of cover versions) may seen strange - or even her live version of Paula Abdul's "Straight Up"(!). However, both are just examples of how even an artist pigeonholed into a certain category can occasionally surprise her fans with inspired covers.
So to "Avalanche", then - whilst Thea doesn't have too much of an angelic voice, she's still makes pleasant listening - but my enjoyment is greatly enhanced by her clever use of words and some sharp-tongued observations on society and its multitude of failings. The album itself was her biggest selling out of the five she'd released up until 2003 - it reached No.62 in the UK charts. Whilst I'm not bothered or influenced by chart placing, it shows that there was something about "Avalanche" that resonated with a fair proportion of the album-buying public, since Thea has never given two figs about producing music for the commercial market. I chose this album as my first exposure to Thea Gilmore after hearing her in live session on Bob Harris's Saturday evening programme last year although I had heard "Juliet" when it was released. Based on what I've heard on the CD, I'll be buying the remainder of her back catalogue sooner rather than later. There's a refreshing lack of production on parts of the album, making several songs sound almost home-spun, whilst she's lost none of the energy or spark displayed on "Rules For Jokers" or "Songs From The Gutter". It's possible that Thea put the independent back into "indie" music - maybe that's a plaudit too far but I suspect it's not a million miles from the truth.
What's on the CD?
There are twelve tracks on "Avalanche":
01. Rags and Bones
02. Have You Heard?
03. Juliet (Keep That In Mind)
06. Pirate Moon
07. Apparition #13
08. Razor Valentine
09. God Knows
10. Heads Will Roll
11. Eight Months
12. The Cracks
Rags and Bones
"Well it's a fist through the window
It's the wine that you bought
It's a far cry from the shackles
Of cognitive thought"
I've heard this track described as the finest song Thea Gilmore has ever written. Whilst I can't confirm or deny this supposition, purely because to date I have yet to hear a couple of her albums, I can agree with the overall sentiments at least. "Rags and Bones" - a nod to a line in a poem by W. B. Yeats - starts off with a heavily synthesised drum-backed loop, augmented by Nigel's acoustic guitar. Pretty standard fare, you might think, but just listen closely to Thea once she chips in - amidst the poetry and criticism there's a simple yet effective melody backed up by her voice, which assumes a questioning tone with just the barest hint of huskiness. It's quickly apparent that she's only got a limited range in term of vocal output - imagine a low-key Joni Mitchell if you will - but she does bring out the best of it, and you're quick to forgive her when the rest of the song more than compensates for the deficit. There's a folk-inspired sound here, alright, but it's subliminal, hidden and dressed up in a deceptively catchy tune that simply runs off with itself in the choruses, Thea managing to sound completely unrestrained and yet graceful at the same time. Delve deeper and there's even a musical saw quivering away in the background, together with the hissy output from a 1950s radio thrown in for good measure - Thea Gilmore isn't frightened to explore the boundaries of what's permissible.
Have You Heard?
"Have you heard they came for money?
Have you heard they picked the fight?
Heard we'd be marching into glory
If we could paint it black or white"
After only one listen through "Have You Heard?", I agreed with everything that I'd read about how good Thea Gilmore's lyric-writing abilities are. There's a sublime beauty to this song, a simplicity that makes it easy to appreciate and yet also a complexity in terms of meaning and metaphor - a stunning criticism of just about anything and everything that's wrong with the world. Thea's normally truculent delivery almost becomes soothing in places, a vocal sticking plaster covering the gaping, raw-edged wounds beneath. Tear yourself away from her soft but insistent delivery and listen to the dobros and wailing, feedback-laden guitars providing the accompaniment - pitched at just the right level to provide succour to what otherwise would certainly be a wholeheartedly depressing song. Just when you've had about enough of the scathing barbs and start reaching for the Prozac, though, Thea ramps up the tempo several notches and the guitars get swept along in the furore - the arrangement's the same but it's hardly recognisable as such due to the pace. I suspect that the lyrics to this song started out as a poem proper - as with so many others that she's written over the years, but there's a delightful arrangement surrounding it. There are even echoes of Aimee Mann in the final gasps of "Have You Heard?" - something that struck me for the first time when I was listening to it again whilst writing this. Whatever the similarities, it has to be one of my favourite tracks from the album.
Juliet (Keep That In Mind)
"There's something so beautifully chic
About burning out so young
You accessorise with bruises on your cheek
And cool tricks of the tongue"
"Juliet" remains arguably the most famous track on the album by virtue of its transformation into a single and the resulting airplay it received ? I believe it became a "Record of the Week" on Ken Bruce's Radio 2 show back in 2003 and it even briefly charted in the Top 40. Listen to the lyrics and you'll find them extremely mean-spirited, even for Thea - she wrote the song after a girl plonked herself down in front of the artist just before she went on stage once and poured out her entire life history. "Juliet was a bit of a tragic character. She's that kind of girl - you can spot them a mile off - who'll talk about themselves for hours." Thea's revenge was to write a vocal lambasting of someone who evidently managed to get right under her skin. Taking all of this into consideration, you'd be forgiven in thinking that she would dwell on the lyrics at the expense of the melody - not so, since "Juliet" is definitely radio-friendly, even a little too much so. The acoustic-guitar led intro was almost identical to The Deep Blue Something's "Breakfast At Tiffany's" - so much so that I stared at the CD player in disbelief when I first heard this after getting the album. Thankfully, though, it's a fleeting similarity and once the electrics get going, Thea chimes in with the first barb about "sixth form poetry" on the subject's bedroom wall - each new piercing blow dressed up in an unusually sweet delivery - well, for Thea at least. The bass, keyboards and drum hardly register since the overwhelming impression is of how graceful the artist sounds, restricting her cutting tone to just the words for a change. "Juliet" resonated with plenty of music lovers, though, brought Thea Gilmore to the attention of a whole new set of fans and probably remains the best-known of her songs. It was also my own introduction to her material and still remains a favourite.
"There's a rumour
Dirty as a chimney stack
Quiet as road-kill
On the northbound carriageway"
So Thea Gilmore can do barbed and depressing, but can she do haunting melodies? With "Avalanche"she proves that she most certainly can. Whilst there's a subtle beauty glossed over the surface delivery throughout, it's only a thin veneer which hides the creeping, menacing undercurrents below. It seems that plenty of production has been applied to this track judging by the credits for programming but the end result sounds very stripped down and bereft of accompaniment - there's some deceptively sparse percussion but very little else apart from Stonier's flanged-up guitar. Of course, you're not concentrating on what's going on in the background, since Thea's mesmerising vocals keep your attention front and centre at all times - whilst they've been messed with slightly by the electronics too, this track contains arguably her best delivery on the whole album, almost an intimate, lazy-sounding whisper at times but still crammed full of emotion despite the lack of power.
"Break neck, full tilt, climb the ladders they built
Angels in the abattoir junking up a good guitar
State city bandwidth, you don't get the language
But don't pick on the girl who's only turning on the light switch"
When I first heard "Mainstream", I was immediately reminded of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire" - I'm not saying Thea pinched the arrangement but the similarities are uncannily close. Her track is short and punchy, each verse filled up to the brim with a totally mind-blowing series of montages and imagery but still it works - and is easily the most accessible song on the album, the most radio-friendly of them all. It fair rattles along, this track - jaunty backing guitars leading into wonderful little solos that precede each verse. Did Thea Gilmore finally sell herself out and write a "proper" pop song? She doesn't believe so - for someone who thought Kurt Cobain sang folk, she also labels herself as writing "folk songs", a description she gives to music that touches people without being market-driven. Anyway, it's too pointed to be pop - she references the latter by the end of the second line, a barbed observation in a song full of gritty little reminders as to why the artist is considered as one of the best UK songwriters in recent years. There's even an embellished chorus that lends the song more attitude and weight, the honed guitars providing anger and the extra vocals giving depth - not that it's really necessary as Thea is only too capable of tearing through life's little facades on her own, but barely being able to control her rage as on this track. She doesn't want answers - the questions are enough for her, and "Mainstream" poses plenty of them.
"You have narrowed it down
To pictures or memory
You have narrowed it down
To dots on a screen"
Apparitions seem to run through Thea Gilmore's albums - "#12" appeared as the opener on 2001's "Rules For Jokers" and "#13" is on "Avalanche". There seems to be no apparent link between the two songs, indeed "#12" is extremely stripped down whilst "#13" has plenty of programming lying behind it. The latter song does appeal, though - the repeated lyric "You have narrowed it down" gets burned into your brain like some ad man's wet dream and it's not long before you find yourself singing along with Thea. If that's not enough of an enticement, the distorted percussion and guitars that both bookend and drive the song create a synthesised siren's call - one that's virtually impossible to resist. Whilst it's produced, "#13" benefits from its production but there's a simplicity about the track that sucks you in - and I haven't got started yet about how good Thea's voice is here.
"I love you like a murder babe
I'm burying the bones
I love you like the last shot
At the bottom of the bottle"
Thea Gilmore can't bring herself to write a straight-forward love song, but "Razor Valentine" is about as close as you'll get without the artist receiving a brain transplant. She's fiddled with the arrangement, giving it an old-school feel by virtue of it's crackly 1950s output, while even her vocals seem distorted and deranged slightly, so much that you think you're listening to her on an old LP. The gut string guitar and xylophone provide more antique charm and the slow pace of the song simply adds to the gentleness of it all. Skim the surface and she's pining for someone, yet delve a bit deeper and it's not quite that simple - Thea can't write a song without including at least one or two little digs along the way. "Razor Valentine" might not poke holes in the Establishment as much as her other material but she's definitely putting one in the eye of the established norms here at least. It's got to be one of the stars of the album - she hasn't sacrificed her sharp tongue for the sake of mood, but rather worked out how to balance the two.
Heads Will Roll
"Do you watch the latest traumas
In radiation dots
Oh the wide-eyed executioner
Gunpowder, treason, plot"
Anyone who has got this far through "Avalanche" and still thinks that Thea Gilmore has mellowed in her tender years might want to rethink their opinion on hearing "Heads Will Roll". Lashings of vitriol are liberally slapped down as a "come on if you think you're hard enough" lyrical taunting of the industry she does her best to avoid. She doesn't want to relinquish control of her material to the big labels - "For someone like me, who's writing all the time, it's important that if I have 12 new songs, I can record them when I want. That's how I keep fresh." It's not the mainstream itself she doesn't like, more the control it exerts. Thea injects plenty of harsh criticism throughout "Heads Will Roll" but the song's driven by a strangely bouncy, even upbeat arrangement despite the message she's sending out. Her voice sounds clear and purposeful, just like on the under-produced "Rules For Jokers", and the rapid-fire, sparseness of it all echoes the earlier album - in fact there's a distinct lack of anything electronic here, apart from the mock accordion that appears mid-way through.
I'll leave the wonderful "God Knows" as a treat for those brave enough to seek out "Avalanche" - those who already have this album will know exactly what I mean.
Full lyrics for all of the songs on "Avalanche" are included, together with some arty photos and a last-page montage.
Thea Gilmore would be included in my list of favourite artists but for the fact that I've to hear her latest album "Liejacker", "Harpo's Ghost" or her debut "Burning Dorothy" - I need just a little more exposure to elevate her standing but I can't see much standing in her way. Thea's been described as having the voice of "a seriously p*ssed off angel" and that's not a million miles away from the truth - yes, she has something of a limited range but uses what she has to great effect. Of course, most plaudits will be reserved for her lyrical prowess - as a wordsmith she's practically unparalleled but manages to marry her messages with wonderful melodies, far better than someone who has an "edge" would be expected to create.
She's not a household name because she refuses to allow others to dictate how she produces music - some might view that as being a little pretentious or precious, but when you've got this much talent, why restrain it for the sake of a few thousand more sales and risk losing it all? Thea says she'd gladly sign up to a major label if they'd give her the latitude and the room she needs - but until then, it's up to her fans and the likes of this review to bang the drum for her. I've just received "Harpo's Ghost" and am eagerly awaiting an opportunity to listen to it - I'm sure I won't be disappointed by Thea Gilmore.
"Avalanche" is a recommended album!
(This review appears in modified form elsewhere.)
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Rags and Bones
2 Have You Heard
3 Juliet (Keep That in Mind)
6 Pirate Moon
7 Apparition #13
8 Razor Valentine
9 God Knows
10 Heads Will Roll
11 Eight Months
12 The Cracks