Ever-vigilant toy giant Mattel recently blocked production of Thea Gilmore's upcoming single "Mainstream." According to Gilmore's label Compass Records, the singer "defamed [Mattel's] line of Barbie merchandise by using the doll's likeness to imply the vacuous nature of pop stardom."
Cease and desist orders aside, one listen to the 23-year-old British rocker's Avalanche and it is apparent that she is no mindless, cleavage-displaying, how's-my-hairstyle Barbie doll pop star clone. In fact, she may have created one of the first masterpieces of this century.
Laced with edgy, pissed-off rockers like "Heads Will Roll," "Rags and Bones" and "Have You Heard," Gilmore's work shares common ground with smart-set British music icons Annie Lennox and Richard Thompson. Working again with producer/multi-instrumentalist Nigel Stonier, this brainy anti-Britney Brit rocks with glorious Eurythmical precision. She also smartly counterbalances her catchy techno-tinted Euro rockers with serious, aching, wistful pop strains that also recall the moody, mercurial Lennox on tracks like "The Cracks" or "God Knows."
Those weary of copy-cat homogenized Ameri-pop will find Gilmore's range to be wide, truly impressive and of a distinctly European tone. Whether on the ticking time bomb of the title track, or an angry, socially incisive rocker like "Apparition #13," or even a twanging folk-rocker like her UK single "Juliet (Keep That in Mind)", her vocals are confident, husky and absolutely magnetic. While some of her quieter material recalls the airy poetic style of Joni Mitchell, Gilmore also manages to skillfully cop an Edith Piaf-meets-Tom Waits-down-in-the-European-alley vibe on the anguished simulated vinyl recording of "Razor Valentine," where she sings, "I love you like a murder, I'm burying the bones," through an opaque screen of languid sensuality.
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But as riveting as the performances are, Gilmore's crown jewels are her lyrics. Originally "discovered" at 18 while working odd jobs at Fairport Convention's studio, she writes with a maturity far beyond her age. Like Convention alumnus Richard Thompson, Gilmore's literary eye functions like an MRI, surveying the bruises, wounds and cancerous tissue of both the social and personal landscapes. Plucky smart-aleck lines like "concrete runs in rivers but there's sugar here to suck / and absolution. com delivers with a little bit of luck" offer diagnosis but no cure beyond a bitter little reality pill, while her strobe-light image of a scenester in "Juliet" brilliantly captures nightclub desperation: "Friday night is gonna freefall through club lust / angel dust and sweet perfume / you remind me of some arthouse black and white I saw / they'd colored in with chalk." Gilmore can jackhammer one's sense of values ("have you heard the towers are shaking / heard the Bible isn't true / have you heard that you're mistaken / to want something to cling to?") or open doors of perception subject to myriad interpretations ("it's a fist through the window, it's the wine that you bought / it's a far cry from the shackles of cognitive thought"). You can't pull a string in the back of a blond Mattel creation and hear lines like that. Vacuous pop star indeed.