Hard to believe, but I’ve been reviewing Thea’s albums for 17 years, beginning with Burning Dorothy, her 1998 debut, recorded when she was 18 after being discovered by now husband Nigel Stonier when, as a 16-year-old, she was working as an intern at Fairport’s studios in Oxford.
Since which time, she’s released 14 albums (13 studio and 1 live), four EPs and numerous singles (all featuring non-album numbers), as well as tracks on assorted tribute albums and, while each has, in one way or another, marked a progression or variation in her skills and approach (though she essentially remains rooted in the folk-rock genre), the only difference in their quality, on their own terms and as an overall career trajectory, has been the shading between stunning and awesome.
Now coming up to 36, married, a mother of two and having struggled with clinical depression, she’s as creative as ever, perhaps even more so, each new release sounding fresh and invigorated, never warming over old ideas or sounds while always sounding distinctively like Thea Gilmore.
Although there’s frequently been calls for some sort of ‘best of’, she’s always resisted the idea, not least because she prefers to look forward rather than back. Until now. But even then, Ghosts and Graffiti isn’t your usual back catalogue collection with one or two new tracks, usually the singles, thrown in as a sweetener for fans who already have everything else. Certainly there’s a few tracks from the original albums, but, having thought things over, she felt there were some songs, particularly those she wrote and recorded when she was a lot younger, that might benefit from a fresh sound. Thus several old numbers have been revisited with the help of special guests, some with whom she’s previously recorded, some new collaborations, plus there’s also four brand new (or previously unrecorded) songs.
It’s one of these that gets the ball rolling. Featuring cello and violin, Copper is a mid-tempo strummer which shares the incipient inner wild child theme of Teach Me To Be Bad as she sings “I am the lightning looking for the earth, you are the copper for what it’s worth. The storm is coming, it’ll be here any day, get out of the way or get ready to burn or get out of my way.”
Of the straight lifts from the original albums, two are plucked from Strange Communion and there’s one each from Regardless, Avalanche, Don’t Stop Singing, Murphy’s Heart and Rules For Jokers.
Working chronologically, Jokers provides the soulful, almost hymnal sparse ballad Holding Your Hand, a not exactly a love song that will turn your legs to jelly, then comes 2003’s Avalanche, her first chart entry at #62 and an album as lyrically full of vigour and aggressive energy as stars and roses. From this comes the title track her Dylan influences are to the fore on the acoustic guitar driven Juliet with its echoes of I’ll Keep It With Mine.
Her 2009 Christmas themed album, Strange Communion, contributes the playfully sceptical That’ll Be Christmas, with its George Harrison homage slide solo, references to Jona Lewie, The Sound Of Music, party hats and drunk relations telling dirty jokes as well as line about being the season of faith, hope and gluttony. By contrast, the haunting Sol Invictus, which, with its melodic echoes of O Come Emmanuel is an invocation to the pagan sun god summoned by the Romans every December 25 and sung unaccompanied by Gilmore and the Sense Of Sound Choir.
A year later came Murphy’s Heart, from which she’s chosen one of the rockier tracks, the jangling single You’re The Radio. Then, featuring John Kirkpatrick on accordion, London is taken from Don’t Stop Singing, the album where she put music to previously unrecorded lyrics by Sandy Denny, and finally, in this category, there’s the tracks from Regardless, eschewing the album’s more experimental material for the lushly orchestrated Love Came Looking For Me and the defiant folk rock jangle of Start As We Mean To Go On So.
What about the reworks? First up is the punchy The Girl Is Taking Bets off Rules For Jokers that, rockabilly guitar courtesy of Robbie McIntosh, sees Thea sharing vocals with Joan Wasser who also provides the piano. The second revisiting is Glistening Bay, a number from the Denny album, that, having previously worked with both Mike Scott and fiddler Steve Wickham, teams Gilmore with entire current incarnation of The Waterboys to give it even more of a swelling, full-bodied sound.
Then comes Razor Valentine off Avalanche, a strung out bluesy torch song, a love affair with Billie Holiday where she’s partnered in guitar and vocals by I Am Kloot’s John Bramwell and the original’s reverb guitar replaced by a greasily fat sax solo from Pete McPhail. Originally a collaboration with Dave McCabe from The Zutons, the new version of Liejacker’s wonderfully wearied, malt and woodsmoke Old Soul doesn’t feature any celebrity names and has Gilmore singing it solo with a violins and cello backing.
The most obscure track here has to be Don’t Set Foot Over The Railway Tracks, a poem she wrote in response to a House of Commons debate about the social dive and which only ever appeared on the As If EP and on the limited edition bonus disc version of Songs From The Gutter. She’s said she’s never felt happy with her delivery of it, which is why she doesn’t even appear on this version, instead Stonier providing keys and McIntosh slide to a performance by punk poet legend John Cooper Clarke who pulls out the full invective. On Rules For Jokers, Thea is joined by King Creosote on vocals and accordion for the lovely slow waltzing Inverigo which, again underlining those early Dylan influences, leans on the melody line of To Ramona.
The last of the new versions pays a revisit to My Voice, a song that featured as a bonus track for Murphy’s Heart (2010). Written on election night 2010 and particularly pertinent five years later, Thea shares vocals with Billy Bragg as well as featuring Stonier on banjo and Fluff on viola.
All of which leaves the remaining new numbers, one of which is old but never before recorded on which political activist Joan Baez (with whom she’s recorded in the past) lends vocals, heart and soul to the keyboards and accordion backed Americana/folk-protest/gospel-infused Inch To Inch, another election night song, this time that of Obama in 2008.
Alongside Copper, the three other entirely new and punchy numbers punctuating proceedings are the itchy rhythm upbeat current single Coming Back To You with its flourishes of cello and violins, the jazzy rocking be yourself themed Live Out Loud, driven along by accordion, strings and sax, and, finally, Robbie McIntosh on slide, the swampy blues Wrong With You, another wilder than I look lyrics about growing old disgracefully that gleefully rhymes catastrophe with Dick Dastardly.
If you get the collector’s edition gatefold vinyl version, you also get five bonus tracks from the original releases. From Avalanche comes The Cracks, a quietly reflective acoustic song of hope rising from the ashes, coloured with cello and cymbal which offered an early comparison to the young Joan Baez, as well as the title track itself which sees her in heavy-lidded, whispery vocal form over an impressionistic prickly tune of gathering electronic clouds and minimal guitar that briefly opens out into a sinisterly sweet musical box tinkle.
Off Murphy’s Heart, introducing Latin rhythms into the mix, there’s the itchily rhythmic God’s Got Nothing On You, a barbed rhyming couplet put down of self-regarding arrogance that doesn’t forget to include a catchy chorus line, while Regardless yields the strings adorned Beautiful Day with its line about angels in the abbreviations, which, if you don’t recognise the title, was originally called This Is How You Find The Way. Finally, Liejacker, from 2008, is represented by Icarus Wind featuring just her voice and Stonier on keyboards.
In her notes on the album, she writes that listening back to the old songs was like being haunted by the ghosts of her past. Rather than exorcise them, she’s given them new life while continuing to graffiti the wall of the music industry with music that matters, music with a heart and a mind rather than a corporate game plan. Long may she be “the girl that went and bucked their little trend.”
This is an album that’s befitting for newcomers and long-time fans…whichever you are, a remarkable album awaits you.
Review by: Mike Davies
Ghosts & Graffiti is Released 18th May 2015 via Full Fill.
Pre-Order it via Amazon
May 09 Birmingham Town Hall, Birmingham,
May 10 Glee Club, Nottingham,
May 12 Pocklington Arts Centre, Pocklington,
May 13 Komedia Brighton,
May 15 Sage Gateshead, Gateshead,
May 16 Bingley Arts Centre, Bingley,
May 20 Cheltenham Town Hall, Cheltenham,
May 22 The Pleasance, Edinburgh,
May 23 RNCM Manchester, Manchester,
May 25 The Stables, Milton Keynes,
May 26 The Apex, Bury St. Edmunds,
May 27 Cadogan Hall, London,