Norway's answer to indie folk rock, St. Thomas records personal music that elicits (for me) memories of summer camp: of horseback riding in chaparral-and-bunny filled canyons; of 150 freshly scrubbed, horny pre-teens standing in a big circle, holding hands and wearing white on a sun-dappled lawn, welcoming the Sabbath bride, giving peace a chance. Sound corny? Yeah. But it felt groovy back then, and that's how St. Thomas feels now.
Remember those cute older counselors in their Levi's cut-offs, leading song circles with acoustic guitars, getting the kids to sing out loud without shame? Thomas Hansen is that camp counselor, singing romantic, rootsy, "real" songs for adults, with gorgeous melodies and simple rhythms. His voice is sweeter than Neil Young's falsetto, so earnest it hits your fifth chakra with a bang, making you long for Sadie Hawkins Day when you could kiss whomever you pleased (and drag them into the chaparral to learn about making bunnies).
A former Norwegian postal employee, the youthful Hansen began pop life as a home recorder, writing songs in his bedroom and recording and distributing on CD-ROM. He was influenced by dark singer/songwriters including Elliot Smith and Will Oldham. Today, he's been working with such gifted indie musicians as Giant Sand's Howe Gelb, Lambchop's Mark Nevers and Jeremy Barnes from Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control.
His May 2002 album, I'm Coming Home (Misra/City Slang), includes 12 songs that last about 45 minutes. They're sung in English, and you'd never guess that Hansen is Norwegian. Four of the 12 are reissued tracks from St. Thomas' first LP, 2000's Mysterious Walks ("Failure #2," "I'm Coming Home"), and his 2001 EP, The Cornerman ("The Cornerman," "Goodbye Emily Lang"). Both were distributed in Europe only. Unfortunately, "Invitation," one of the band's most stirring songs from the 2000 LP, isn't one of the reissued tracks. When the band Lambchop toured Norway last summer, they got on stage, dancing and singing backup to "Invitation," an infectious, folky sing-along about "filling cups" that seems straight out of Narnia or a Tarot deck ("Get down, get up/ Come here, have a cup/ That's right, stand still/ In the St. Thomas world"). The group is recording a new album; cross your fingers that "Invitation" is included.
Not every single St. Thomas song is transcendent, but those that are have a kind of beauty and weight that in '60s parlance was thought of as "heavy" (which is different from today's use of "heavy," as in "sludge.") Some songs are charming in a rustic, lo-fi way, such as "I'm Coming Home #2" with its ragged chorus, while others are drenched in twangy reverb, like the spaghetti-Western-style "Goodbye Emily Lang." They range from jangly psychedelia as with "Oh I Have Left the Ground," reminiscent of the late Chris Bell's "I Am the Cosmos," written for Big Star in 1977 to earnest folk-rock, like the album's appealing opener, "The Cool Song." To percussive acoustic guitar St. Thomas adds banjo, fiddle, tasteful keyboards, and harmonica. Most notable are the pretty melodies and Hansen's voice. Most of the songs are based on simple verse/chorus structures not unlike camp songs plus breakdowns, bridges and such, which punctuate for added interest.
In quaint late '60s/early '70s style, "Take a Dance With Me" tells the story of a boy who meets a girl (who sounds rather like a Norwegian indie flower child). She comes twirling by while he sits bitterly isolating on a bench, and she tries to open his heart ("So come on, get along/ Hang out with me/ Please hang out with me.") Banjo adds much to this pretty song, where Hansen's plaintive, pure, high voice recalls Love's deceased Bryan MacLean singing "Old Man" on 1967's Forever Changes.
Norwegians put "Cornerman" in their country's top 10 Billboard pop chart, where it debuted and remained for six weeks at #8. Indeed, its lovely, rhythmic strains are addictive. Steeped in a tune of wistful minor chords and longing ("I am the cornerman, alone as I dress up/ I stand here every day, your rejections made me stop"), a picked banjo follows its own melody line, backed by percussive guitar, violin, and keyboards. Hansen's voice sounds especially pretty here. It's not a song you can exactly understand in the linear sense ("I won't do anything to feel your wheel" ??); it's an enigmatic song that's understood through affect and it affects the heart.
Although there's certainly spirit in Thomas Hansen's music, "saint" as a self-appellation may seem conceited: a friend who's an indie rock goddess asked, "Wouldn't it be presumptuous if I called myself St. _____?" I chuckled, thinking about it. She's right; her point is well taken. Yet, her music has also brought a smile to my face as I remembered the golden days of song circles and camp counselors (wearing Levi's when the red line was the regular line!). And anyone who can make me remember those special days with a few strummed chords is a saint, as far as I'm concerned.