No one can fault Rosie Thomas for not taking risks. With Love steers clear of the fragile indie-pop we have come to expect from her. Her new project is a retro-pop album that feels like it could have been pulled out of your mother’s record collection. Does she pull it off? Yes. This is a charming and unexpected salute to the female pop vocalists of Rosie’s youth, proving that nostalgia does not have to be sentimental. Fans of her wispy acoustic past will be surprised to hear this record veer into territory reminiscent of Barbara Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, and early Amy Grant. Her musical homecoming is a commendable attempt to make the kind of art that makes her happy, and it unashamedly pulls on the heart strings of her listeners. With Love sidesteps irony in favor of a return to innocence, and this mostly comes across as refreshing.
The vocals are particularly strong, up front in the mix, and never get lost in instrumentation. The purity of her voice explores the line between innocence and naivety. Her voice is as strong as it has ever been: straight-ahead and without the kind of ego-bound flourishes that make the Glee crowd unbearable. The tight Wilson-Phillips type harmonies that surround her on tracks like “In Time” and “A Really Long Year” contribute to this ethos but are at times too much. There is some “cheese” factor within a few of the tunes, but the production downplays this by emphasizing acoustic instrumentation and tight bass lines. The playful bass on “Where Was I” is an example of how she is keeping her retro-pop kickback fresh. Without this type of instrumental push, a few of the tunes like “Is This Love” would quickly become uninteresting. The musical virtues are in no doubt due to her new found freedom from Sub Pop and a studio band that included David Bazan (Pedro the Lion), Blake Wescott (Damien Jurado), brother Brian Thomas, Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), and Jenn Wood (The Postal Service).
Show tune melodies abound, but the urge to over-manipulate is resisted at crucial moments throughout many of the tunes. The track “Like Wildflowers” is an example of a tune that could have been ruined with a key change and a few extra choruses. The ability to resist overindulgence comes across as charm. If Zooey Deschanel is cute, Rosie Thomas is charming. And charm somehow comes off as more authentic in this case. She is bucking trends instead of setting them. All because she is becoming more comfortable in her own skin and “...finding her way back home”.
The female pop influences from the 80’s and early 90’s are easy to name, from Debbie Boone to Vanessa Williams. They are purposely obvious and serve to comfort. The draw-back is that every song sounds familiar, and this coaxes the listener into a false sense of security—one that may cause some to dismiss this album too early. But With Love is a “grower” of an album that can easily turn into an addiction after a few listens in the car on the way to the grocery store. You may even shed a tear upon your third or fourth listening of closer “Sometimes Love”.
Whatever your conclusion, this is a fascinating transformation from indie darling to pop princess. Rosie Thomas is plotting a way into paradise regained. Her first first full-length record in four years is a risky, yet utterly sincere, retro-pop gem.