There’s a fresh new female voice on the rock scene that takes the stage with a confident sense of self and melody enhanced by a wry intelligence. Beth Thornley is this compact bundle of wonderful, yet the irony is that her impressive singer-songwriter talents have thus far remained an unheralded secret. While Sheryl Crow and a gang of questionably talented sound-alike urchins crowd the radio waves, Thornley is in Los Angeles seeking wider exposure. In an industry not known for fairness or justice, one only hopes for the best.
Thornley originally hails from Birmingham, Alabama, where she was given piano lessons and weaned on the likes of Bach and Mozart. Though retaining a love for classical music, Thornley long ago pledged her allegiance to rock and pop and never turned back. The results of her passion are the ten songs on her eponymous, self-released debut, a charismatic mix of interesting rock rhythms with hints of blues, folk, and more. Thornley is able to blend disparate musical elements into seamless blocks of memorable three- and four-minute songs.
Thornley’s expressive voice is the focal point on these tales of deception and heartbreak and human relationships gone awry, effectively displaying a range from high whisper to belting out phrases with the kind of strength that demands attention. She also surrounds herself with talented musicians Rob Cairns (who also earns credits for co-writing some of the music, along with great clean production work) and Rob Disner.
“I Will Lie” is a strong opener to the CD, the tale of a woman caught deep within the web of her loving prevarication: “And I will pretend until it fits like a second skin / And I’ll reply each time this is how it’s always been / And I will lie to you until I believe / I will lie until the lie is me”.
“You Made It So” is a hard, after-the-fact confession to a pretentious, lying, blowhard of an ex-lover whose clear penmanship made it simple to read the writing on the wall: “I stopped, dropped and rolled / Sorry if I seem cold but you’ll have to explode all by yourself / You made it so easy to walk away”. Thornley rocks a bit harder on “Sunshine and Celluloid”, a cautionary song about slick, though clueless, operators.
“Arrogance” approximates, to my ears, the sounds of an earlier Aimee Mann (circa Whatever), which is a very good thing. It’s a battle between music-writing lovers, and the lyrics flaunt Thornley’s biting intelligence with thoughts like this: “I thought if I spoke clearly you would hear me and then understand that the chaos in our lives was just a fence to mend / Then I realized you made the fence with all the holes exactly as you wanted ‘cause it left you in control”.
That same Aimee Mann-vibe (along with some Kate Bush too) is apparent on the anthem of rejected, questionable friendship, “Don’t Save Me”. It’s an ironic counterpoint to Mann’s “Save Me” (from the Magnolia soundtrack). Thornley again wraps her way around unlikely phrasings, and even name checks the Wharton character Lily Bart.
Perhaps my favorite here is the eclectic, tough-guy stance of “How Many Days”. With dobro and wonderful island rhythms thrown into the mix, Thornley contemplates not knowing peace of mind if it “bit her in the ass”, and how “some folks are just happier being blue”. Her voice takes on a grittier rasp here, and, to her great credit, when she sings “Here I stand with my dick in my hand”, it works.
The ballad “Talking Like An Angel” is a solemn confession from one who spun her angelic words to hide the fact that she knew a relationship would be temporary right from the start. This song was selected as a finalist in a Carole Bayer Sager Valentine’s Day Song Contest.
Another refreshing surprise of a song is “Lucky You”, wherein it’s all about the control and unkind ownership of a man who must be kept full of “booze and seconal” because when he’s sober, he’s no fun at all. One is led to believe the poor schmoe walks out—according to voiceovers at the song’s end who try to reason with him to stay. Who says manipulation can’t be fun?
“Go Baby Go” is Thornley cleverly employing tired phrases and sewing them together in an attempt to create something new; while “Break U N 2” shows Thornley’s lyrics don’t always work (rhyming auctioneer, queer and veneer for one, and offering up confusing wordings—e.g. “Now you don’t think that we don’t know that you don’t have a clue what you should do”).
Still, all told, Thornley creates some compelling music on this most impressive debut. There are shades of Aimee Mann both in production and in style, along with Sheryl Crow and Juliana Hatfield. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to include extended reference to the folk angst of a Beth Orton, or the voice strength of the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs, or the quirky song-story ability of a Jill Sobule. Thornley has a bit of all this, and an upbeat energy that transcends it. She writes wonderfully infectious music, delivers it with an endearing vocal style, and there’s not a bad song in the lot.
Beth Thornley is an original that bears watching in the years to come. Why she hasn’t yet been embraced by those in power remains a musical mystery. In the interim, enjoy her full-fledged talents on this refreshing debut. With intelligence and abundant musical ability, perhaps she can expand her oeuvre beyond mere relationship songs for her next go round—and when she does, here’s hoping it’s on a well-distributed label.
// Notes from the Road
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