Furry Sings the Blues
I often wonder what it’s like to be the person who creates the press releases for bands and artists. Obviously the main thing these people want to do is sell the record label’s music to a wide audience. Amanda’s press kit would lead you to believe that her new album Mass is a new experience in trip-hop. But don’t come here looking for any similarities between Thorpe and Portishead or Tricky. Amanda has strong folk ties and if anything comes across the most when listening to this album, it is a folk-like quality. There are vague moments within the songs of Mass that could be considered trip-hop but really the music here owes more to electric jazz than sampled beats and abstract arrangements.
In fact, Thorpe often reminds me of Joni Mitchell when she was in her jazzy phase in the mid-Seventies. That alone makes Mass a sincere pleasure for me to listen to. I kind of think of it as a Hejira for my generation. And although this album isn’t as spare and sprawling as that of Joni’s, it is laden with the kind of storytelling and frank statement that made Mitchell’s work as compelling. Mass is certainly a tremendous album to debut with, but Thorpe seems like the kind of artist who doesn’t mind taking chances and will no doubt do just that throughout her career.
She started out in New York City in 1996 with her group, the Wirebirds. The band received a good amount of acclaim and attention, but Thorpe called it a day in 1998 and embarked on her solo career. In 1999 she released an EP entitled Too Many Spirits that won her further kudos. Having not heard any of her prior work to Mass, I cannot comment on any similarities or differences. However, I have the feeling that such attempts would not matter.
Thorpe’s voice reminds me somewhat of ex-Katydid Susie Hug. It has a very rich tone and nice flexible range. In the opening track “This Dear City”, Thorpe sings the lines “And I don’t know where I’m heading and I don’t know what I’ll find / I’ve lost the map to reason in this dear city” as guitar lines snake about and trumpet notes cry out against an arcing bass track. It’s riveting throughout, and again echoes the kind of free-form lyricism of Mitchell. The song is just the intro to the grand terrain that Mass covers. It soon gives way to “Eyes of an Angel”, in which Thorpe’s voice weaves sensually around the music and rhythm, creating an irresistible siren-like quality.
But if you want to talk about smoldering sensuality, look no further than Amanda’s cover of “Them There Eyes” which brings the old favorite into a new light. Thorpe’s voice is filtered and she caresses each word with an indelibly aching passion that wreaks gentle havoc on the listener. If Soul Coughing had Amanda on lead vocals instead of M. Doughty, it may have sounded a bit like this. It’s certainly a very satisfying arrangement and performance that pays a nice homage to Thorpe’s jazz tendencies, her own of which can be heard in the beautiful “Always”.
Amanda would even do Aimee Mann proud with “By You”. With its minor key piano phrases and impassioned string arrangement, Thorpe eerily echoes many of Mann’s finest moments. There’s even room for a bit of more “traditional” pop textures. Both “High and Dry” and “Splinters” would fit nicely on the radio. But it’s the regal textures of songs like “Toy Guitar” and “Better Left” that really make Mass the phenomenal and beautiful album that it is. Clearly, Thorpe is one of those very gifted musicians who deserves be placed in the same league as Mann, Mitchell and the great Fiona Apple.
Thorpe is another artist currently with the Cropduster label. For the most part, Cropduster has proved to be incredibly wealthy when it comes to talented acts like Patti Rothberg and True Love. Amanda’s presence will only continue to strengthen the label’s reputation for releasing albums by bands and artists who truly do matter and have something exciting and fully engaging to listen to. Add Mass to your list of must-have CDs. Trip-hop or not, Amanda Thorpe is incredibly gifted and has a wonderful set of songs here to prove it.