When my roommate heard me listening to Thea Gilmore's newest album,
Avalanche, she said that Gilmore sounded like Fiona Apple, a
thought that had crossed my mind upon first listen. It would be easy
to classify her as a Fiona Apple type: a smoky-eyed and smoky-voiced
chanteuse who sounds wise beyond her years. But Gilmore really
deserves more credit than to be classified as merely sounding like
Apple, or any other female pop musician; instead she sounds like
someone who majored in the Great Songwriters, absorbing the influence
of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits (among others) to create an
album of songs of intimate and smart-edged beauty. She has five
albums to her credit and is already working on her sixth, a
collection of covers, making it hard to believe she is only 23 years
old. Upon the release of Avalanche last year, the British
press hailed her as the best singer/songwriter from their shores in
years. That's a lot of hype to live up to, so it's a good thing that
she can deliver.
"Mainstream," the centerpiece of the album, is a fiery folk song with
a Dylanesque delivery of such pointed lyrics as: "Who's gonna train
us, can you really blame us?/ If we grow up we're all going to be
famous." She seems to have especial venom for the superficialities of
pop culture in her songs, echoing the disdain she has shown in
interviews for record companies who sell their artists based on their
sexed-up, photogenic looks rather than their music. (Gilmore resisted
joining a major label in order to have creative control, releasing
albums on her own label, Shameless, until joining with British indie
Hungry Dog for Avalanche.)
"Razor Valentine" is a darkly elegant piece of pop, her voice sensual
and sardonic as she takes on the conventions of Celine Dion mushiness
with lines like "I love you like the factory smoke/ Wraps its arms
around the sky." While songs like "Mainstream" and "Razor Valentine"
are fun for their bite and swagger, it's her softer, more
personal-sounding material that is most affecting and memorable.
The dreamy "Pirate Moon" is haunting upon first listen, gorgeous in
its poetic intimacy. It is the song you will find yourself returning
to again and again, especially when like Gilmore in the song, you
long for a place to disappear.
"Eight Months" is a bluesy, delicate track, a musical travelogue that
spans the globe from Toronto to New Zealand to London, with Gilmore
passionately pleading to have "Eight months/ To see it all." "The
Cracks" is equally lovely, featuring Gilmore's best vocal
performance. A criticism of Gilmore is that she does not vary her
singing style from song to song, a comment that has some merit,
especially on the first half of the album. But on "The Cracks,"
Gilmore sounds amazing, her voice a blend of optimism and
vulnerability that dovetails beautifully with the cello on the track.
"I'll show you my heart/ If you show me yours," Gilmore sings on "The
Cracks," and in listening to Avalanche, you do feel like she
has revealed not just her heart in her music, but also her
intelligence, talent and grace. The British and American mainstream
haven't yet heard of Thea Gilmore, but given the quality of her
music, it's only a matter of time.