Thea Gilmore,
Rules for Jokers
(Compass, 2002)

Rules for Jokers is Thea Gilmore's third album, and I'm amazed I haven't heard of her before. Phenomenally far-removed from short-shelf-life Barbie-doll pop-icons, she is a breath of fresh, sometimes rather chilly air! Pleasingly intelligent and forthright with her original lyrics and offering an interesting variety of musical sounds, this girl is mature before her time.

The album has an intriguing acoustic sound; she plays acoustic and electric guitar, kalimba, cimbala, mbira and piano, and there are also musical saws, electric autoharps, harmonicas, didgeridoos, accordions and griddle pans! Her vocals are smooth, natural and easy to listen to; her voice sounds familiar -- shades of Tanita Tikeram? -- and she leaves you wanting to hear more. Her lyrics are edgy, witty and often reminiscent of Elvis Costello, with clever rhyming imagery and stories to tell for those who listen.

The single "This Girl Is Taking Bets" in particular contains some memorable lines: "This girl is the snowfall where the spring should have been/She's the stains on the pages of a top shelf magazine/...This girl is the rainbow in the dewy eyed stares/She's the name tag on the toe/Of your long dead love affairs...." "Apparition No. 12" sinks into the memory with "And I held the future up to a looking glass/It bears a striking resemblance/To the embers of the past."

She moves with consummate ease from rock to folk to blues to pop, and blurs the boundaries to suit her style and message. The bitter and poignant song "The Things We Never Said" has got to strike a chord with anyone on the wrong end of an affair -- "And I've been talking to the radio/Coz it doesn't answer back telling it/How they showed our love in monochrome/Before it all turned black...." Has the girl from Oxfordshire read the poetry of Brian Patten or Roger McGough? She displays a similar style and flair at times.

Thea Gilmore's website provides the information that a fourth CD, Songs From The Gutter, is available now, and I'm keen to hear it after enjoying the cynical, gutsy words and invigorating sound of Rules For Jokers. The term "punk-folk" is bandied about in regard to this CD, and while heartily detesting punk, I can see what the phrase is used to imply. This is an unusual cohesion of verbal acid realism and musical harmony. If she keeps going on this way, she might just succeed in making the word "bland" obsolete!

- Rambles
written by Jenny Ivor
published 22 February 2003

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