Priya Thomas – [Album]

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Now that rock n’ roll has been an established cultural staple for three generations, it has become regarded as conventional wisdom that some musical approaches and forms have reached a pinnacle in the songbooks of a select group of performers; Bob Dylan, for example, has established himself on a plain all his own with his commentaries upon the human condition and detached delivery of every subject from love to death to violence. He has separated himself emotionally from the world about which he sings and forces listeners to care in his stead because he has no tears left to shed. In her own way, Lucinda Williams is able to coax the same level of emotional reaction from her audience, but her method is much more active; she figuratively reaches out and slaps her listeners – daring them to react. Conversely, in a totally different way, Sebadoh figured out how to draw audiences in by laying everything the band has in them to offer out naked and begging for acceptance. Their modus was to be wide open and that sense of daring to be taken at face value warts and all was and continues to be incredibly endearing.

For listeners ready to accept them, these exemplary players have reached a legendary status for others to look up to and try to emulate but, after toiling diligently and coming up short for years, Priya Thomas has chosen an even more provocative sound that picks through the greatest attributes of songwriting royalty, assembles those parts that fit her means and uses those collages to produce an incredibly spare but powerful sound all her own.

It does need to be said that there is exactly nothing earnest about the ten tracks that make up Blood Heron. From the opening acoustic charge of “Your Guitar, My Undoing,” Thomas lets it all hang out (slightly mumbled and garbled lyrics, dirty, unpolished guitars) and flow as naturally as it comes to her. From the very beginning of the record, it doesn’t seem like any effort has been made to edit a single note or confrontational lyric from these songs, she simply lays them out plainly for audiences to take or leave as they please, but that’s only part of what’s at work here. So understated that it almost goes unnoticed on first listen, additional fragments of sound (piano, organ, additional percussion) lurk around the edges of the song as if it was originally recorded on secondhand, half-erased tape but as if by magic actually manages to add auxiliary texture that beefs it up and fleshes it out. Those ambient sounds creep a little closer into the foreground of “Had I Known, I Would Have Declined” to add an air of delicacy to the proceedings and complimenting Thomas’ mournful whisper beautifully. “Dakota From The Hebrew” continues the building trend, but as soon as “Vigilante” kicks over the transition is spontaneously complete and the effect is nothing short of bordering on religious epiphany. Lips pulled back into a sneer, Priya Thomas delivers a harsh, dismissive rant that’ll bring even the most hard-boiled listener to his knees. The layered and loose guitars sprawl into every corner of the aural spectrum and make a believer out of anybody that wasn’t already sold on the notion that this singer doesn’t have to be sweet and nice, she’s got simply knee-buckling songwriting skills to fall in love with.

From there, the rest is gravy; “Gunpowder Heart” sighs exhaustedly at a lover Thomas has no further use for before hoping another one will come back to her in “Lit Lightning” and hardening up to profess that she ‘don’t need no one’ in “Wine Moonshine And Sugar Beams.” At no point does the singer slouch into resignation and simply accept anything here; she’s always got her back up and is willing to fight at the drop of a dime in these ten songs but Priya Thomas isn’t simply some two-dimensional rabble rouser. Rather, Blood Heron presents a whole picture of the songwriter from every angle. Like Dylan, she’s dissociated enough here that she can be as honest (or not) as she chooses without hesitation; like Sebadoh, one of the singer’s most endearing qualities is her openness to be taken as she is but, like Lucinda Williams, she won’t play a victim and will take a swing when she needs to. Blood Heron is Priya Thomas’ naked expression of all that she is and because she makes no excuses or apologies for it, it is a potent and beautiful record. Songwriters of any stripe can only hope to release a record as strong as this.

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