From Ramones to Jimmy Cliff, Thea Gilmore's covers are full of new life.
The cover photograph on Thea Gilmore's Loft Music looks strangely familiar. Gilmore sits amid a scattered mess of records and books, piles of old music mags, a cup of coffee, playing cards, an old amp, and some cats. It's a mess the music obsessed know well. I've been there; and so, more than likely, have you. Turn to the back of the CD, though, and it's a different picture altogether. In that one, Thea's missing, replaced by an empty spot on the crude brown carpet. Suddenly, the piles take on an empty feeling. The memorabilia piles become mounds of trash suggesting it's the heart in the middle of the mess that gives it meaning.
Loft Music represents Thea's journey through this memorabilia. It's a short record that sheds a gorgeous light on what it means for music to take over your life, to alter your perceptions. On her website, Thea describes Loft Music as an addendum to her CD, Avalanche. She calls it a "this is where I came in" piece, recorded in homage to the writers and performers whose, to put it romantically, spirit stood with her during Avalanche's execution, and likely her entire career to 2004, when Loft hit the UK.
Fans would be familiar with the material, as Thea is known for her out-there and interesting cover versions performed at live shows. Loft Music collects some of her favorites, as diverse as Neil Young's "The Old Laughing Lady", Credence's "Bad Moon Rising", Van Morrison's "Crazy Love", Ramones' "Don't Come Close", and Harburg and Gorney's "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime". Gilmore's efforts here are commendable. She's achieved something music fans can relate to even if some songs fail to reach the heights of others. Gilmore, as fan, interprets these songs based on years of repeated listens and it's clear throughout that she's understood their varied influences on her. Her Credence cover, for instance, is fuelled by an obvious appreciation for Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Young, and even other Credence tracks.
In a way it suggests a weird case of student becoming teacher. Gilmore would likely refute the notion that she's learned enough of her craft to turn the table this way, but she delivers these songs with such skilled bravado that its hard not to at least consider it. Take her version of "Don't Come Close" -- her Neil Young-style storyteller approach to her music backslaps the track from a punk anthem to a seductive song of love-danger. Gilmore's sweetly driving delivery of the song's key phrase -- "The only thing that you regret / You need more time to forget" -- is masterful and unforgettable. Amazing how a softer interpretation of such a standout lyric can shift it from a gritty wail to an intensely personal and pertinent sentiment.
Then again, there's likely a reason "Don't Come Close" is covered and not "Beat on the Brat" or "Carbona Not Glue". Thea's takes here offer a perspective that comes from more than a desire to cover a much-loved track. Those years of adoration pay off in the way Gilmore twists each track to be distinctly about her and her experience. Her "Crazy Love" is tragically heartfelt in the same way that her "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" is a new-age political anthem reflecting her experiences with the song's down and (almost) out themes.
Probably the song most affected by Gilmore's light approach is "Bad Moon Rising". Completely without Fogerty's burned edge, the song works as a ballad with the "trouble on the way" theme immediately evoking matters of the heart. Which is to say, Gilmore's version rids the song of its wolfish undertones, whether or not intended. It's reminiscent of her version of Springsteen's "Cover Me" on Avalanche. Where Bruce and Fogerty are vocally loud and course, Gilmore replaces their dynamism with a more measured singing style. And still the tracks retain weight and direct resonance.
It's likely Gilmore's deep and unhurried vocal that allows the songs to be so affecting. She does -- forgive the tired phrase -- command attention. Especially when collected, these songs are exciting again. Her ability to be so interesting and complex and slow gives each song exactly what it should -- new meaning, new appeal. Her versions of Paul Westerberg's "Hide 'n' Seekin'" and Jimmy Cliff's "Sitting in Limbo" are on par with their original counterparts more than any other tracks here. Gilmore's takes are so close to perfect that you start to wonder why the original performers didn't do it her way in the first place.
And that's the point. Her study of popular music and her understanding of what it is that moves a song from enjoyable to obsession, and therefore worthy of such close study, is what led to her to this successful place. Every covered artist here should be so proud.