Saturday, 4 September 2010

Thea Gilmore - Murphy’s Heart Album Review (2010)

Thea Gilmore has been making music for twelve years in a career that now includes eleven albums. Thea is very much an album maker, having only released nine singles in the same time, and chooses to promote her music through gigs, festivals and radio performances rather than embracing the usual tedious channels as is the nature of popular culture. In 2009 Thea embarked on an ambitious, although not entirely original, venture to further promote and fund her art, entitled Angels In The Abattoir. This is designed to provide fans, in exchange for a yearly subscription, direct and exclusive access to new music (mostly low-key simply produced and more intimate recordings), signed lyric sheets, demos, videos, Q&A etc. But within all this have been two new commercially released albums: last year’s seasonally themed Strange Communion (which works as an alternative leftfield Christmas album) and now Murphy’s Heart.

The first thing to note about Murphy’s Heart is the musicianship involved. Unlike recent albums, Thea has includes thirteen other ‘band members’ including, of course, Thea’s partner and stalwart producer/player Nigel Stonier, playing a plethora of instruments - including bizarrely table tops and flight cases, as is the folk tradition. The effect is a much bigger pop-folk sound giving the music a lighter easier feel. Not that Thea doesn’t include the occasional moody waltz - something she does so well - but Murphy’s Heart veers away from this ‘safe’ territory to take risks, most of which pay off. Importantly the album contains two of the best songs Thea has made. Early on is the gorgeous God’s Got Nothing On You, re-exploring a favourite theme of religion but masking a deep dark secret and juxtaposing the obvious with images of power, corruption and fame. Couple this with a beautiful swirling arrangement and a superb vocal chorus and you have an instant slice of perfection. The second obvious standout song is the overtly poppy commercially friendly You’re The Radio - a blatant attempt to create a big hit with all the boxes ticked. A brilliant guitar-led arrangement around Thea’s bittersweet delivery: ‘I’m the heart and you’re the soul, I’m the part and you’re the whole, I am stronger than you think, the spike that turned up in your drink’ is clever and edgy. The song even gets a cliché pop fade.

But around these obvious moments are other more subtle gems of genius. Love’s The Greatest Instrument Of Rage is right on the button and has distinct echoes of teenage rebel Thea banging out her pain and frustrations. Proof that there is an old fighting political spirit inside the new: ‘Oh I don’t know its name baby but it keeps me up at night’ and the wonderfully direct: ‘It’s taken 30 years, and a little pill to learn…’. Opener This Town, kicking off the album with the line ‘well hello my little train wreck’ before laying on the grim reaper treatment, is a warning sign for getting trapped not only physically but also mentally: ‘and soon you’ll be a memory of a shadow of a lie…’. This is more darkness within the light. The flip side of these is a different approach entirely. Automatic Blue and How The Love Gets In are both gorgeous ballads, the latter providing a lift in what turns out to be a weak ending to an otherwise strong album (with the exception of the dark frantic brilliance of Not Alone). There are only a few moments of unsteadiness: the overtly ridiculous cabaret of Jazz Hands and the uncharacteristic uncomfortably sultry Teach Me To Be Bad which suffers from a drawn-out nursery rhyme chorus and kitchen-sink production. With risk comes reward but also the inevitable misgiving.

Motherhood and companionship has certainly changed Thea. One would expect nothing else. Gloomy naysayer and wide-eyed dreamer has been replaced with grounded-realist and a calmer more measured approach. She is certainly loving where she is and those around her and has new inspiration to take care of and inject into her music. Those expecting another Avalanche or a Burning Dorothy (or ideally a hybrid of the two) will be disappointed but Thea’s music can still pack a punch, and Murphy’s Heart continues to mix sharp lyrics with cutting arrangements to keep things unique and characteristic, as Thea continues to tackle serious themes, weave important metaphors and make good music.
-- CS

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