Rosie Thomas, If Songs Could Be Held

Rosie Thomas, If Songs Could Be Held

There are only a few singers out there who possess voices that literally make me want to break down and cry; most, oddly, are guys, people like Mark Kozelek, Nick Drake, Eric Bachman, Tom Waits, or Will Sheff, who sound either so far gone or so deranged that I feel like I’m being pulled along with them down into the depths of their personal despair. In terms of female singers, the field’s sparser, maybe because of the glut of “divas” currently ruling the airwaves with their tacky pink scepters and seemingly identical love of the melisma. Sorry, but Mariah Carey, Beyonce, or even non-diva Sarah McLachlan don’t make me want to weep, not even at the peak of their dramatic emotive-ness. That honor goes to a humble (and often somewhat obscure) few, like Azure Ray’s Orenda Fink, Corrina Repp, Portuguese fado singer Mariza, Sally Ellyson of Hem, Lisa Gerrard, and, yes, Rosie Thomas.

And on If Songs Could Be Held, Ms. Thomas demonstrates once again why she’s firmly in that august company. Although the album’s less folky than her previous stuff, it’s still gorgeously melancholy, and Thomas still steals my heart every time she opens her mouth to sing. Take “Time Goes Away,” for example — it’s an affecting, pained track, just Thomas and a piano playing in what sounds like a cathedral, and it’s overwhelming in its stark majesty. She appropriates a page from the Tori Amos songbook, almost literally, for “Pretty Dress,” which sounds like it could be an outtake from Little Earthquakes, and while that’s not necessarily a good thing, she does well with it. Similarly, with “Loose Ends” she unfurls a nice little bluesy story-song that sounds like it could come from soul revivalist Joan Osborne, but Thomas surpasses even Osborne’s considerable talent.

Then there’s “It Don’t Matter To The Sun,” the absolute apogee of the album, a quiet-yet-soaring ballad of love lost that could almost be gospel…which makes sense, since the song was co-written by gospel singer Tommy Sims (and first performed, by the by, by Garth Brooks on his In the Life of Chris Gaines disc), and the B3 accompaniment makes things even more churchly (more on that later). This is what makes Songs worth hearing. Thomas sings the way jazz artists like Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan did (as well as folk touchstones like Odetta or Joni Mitchell), like she actually means what she’s singing about. (Sorry, Joss Stone, but there’s really no comparison.)

The track is achingly beautiful and sad, the same kind of song that first drew me to Thomas’s music in the first place. Her voice sounds a lot more powerful here than on anything else I’ve heard from her, to boot. Her previous albums all sounded fragile and delicate to me, where on If Songs Could Be Held she’s in full control and confident of her abilities, yet simultaneously able to bare her soul and stay vulnerable. It’s a little strange, by the way, trying to reconcile this side of Thomas’s personality with her, um, side gig as a stand-up comedienne (go to the Sub Pop site and download the video of her performance at a label party as comedic alter-ego “Sheila”). But hey, if she can pull off both, more power to her.

Okay, now that I’ve doled out the praise, it’s time for the “but”. I love Rosie Thomas’s voice, enjoy the heck out of her songwriting, and fully adore listening to her sing and wallowing in that sleepy, languid kind of melancholy…but taken all together, If Songs Could Be Held is almost too sweet. Listening to this disc, I’ve had this little nagging feeling at the back of my skull, and I think that’s what it is. At points, Songs gets so sickly-sweet that I suspect that if I heard it on the radio without knowing who was singing, I’d swear that I’d accidentally tuned in to an Amy Grant marathon.

Not that Amy Grant’s a bad singer or anything, mind you — she’s certainly good at what she does. It’s just that she’s patently inoffensive and unchallenging, just a shiny-clean person singing beautiful songs about beautiful things. Much as I hate to say it, that’s what parts of this disc remind me of (particularly “Say What You Want” and, to a lesser extent, “Guess It May”): lightweight, super-cheery vocal pop, the kind you hear on non-rock Christian stations. And just so we’re clear, that’s not a label I like slapping onto this, but that’s what connects in my head when I’ve got the headphones on.

So I’m torn on this one. When Thomas hits the mark, as with “It Don’t Matter To The Sun,” “Since You’ve Been Around,” or “Time Goes Away,” she does it amazingly well, but there are moments on Songs that just don’t measure up; they’re not bad, they’re just…well, bland. I’m all for reinvention and musical growth in general, but I sincerely hope songs like “Say What You Want” aren’t an indication of where Thomas is heading.

(Sub Pop Records -- P.O. Box 20367, Seattle, WA. 98102;; Rosie Thomas --
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Saturday, October 1st, 2005. Filed under Reviews.

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