The Lilith Fair festival was a welcome change in the late ’90s. A number of female artists finally found the audiences they deserved. Sarah McLachlan and her cohorts proved to the music industry that women musicians could be profitable in the marketplace. It lasted only for a few years, and then the women’s movement in music all but disappeared.
Was Lilith responsible for the short-lived careers of Meredith Brooks and Sixpence None the Richer? Can we blame it for Jewel’s foray into techno-pop? I wish. What has happened in the years since is that serious female artists writing in the same territories that many females have mastered before (namely, introspective, singer-songwriter tunes and plaintive ballads) have been all but forgotten in popular music. Female artists dominating the Billboard charts these days are pop teens and R&B ladies.
Lest we forget the power of a woman writing and singing a personal, simple song, Rosie Thomas is here to remind us. She writes in the style of a number of successful women who have come before her in the music industry. The opener “Since You’ve Been Around” is more alt-country than anything else. It’s a gorgeous song. It shuffles along, relying mostly on a quiet acoustic guitar. But the melody is what makes it special.
This moves into “Pretty Dress”, which sounds like a Tori Amos verse paired with a chorus appropriate for Michelle Branch, but much more accomplished. “Loose Ends” utilizes a bluesy groove and an organ straight out of a roots rock band. This segues into the ballad “It Don’t Matter to the Sun”, with just Thomas’s voice and an electric piano. It’s a nice ballad, once performed by Garth Brooks on his Chris Gaines album, and Thomas infuses it with enough emotion to make it a success here. The variety of these songs keeps the album fresh despite the reprocessing of old themes and styles.
This is Thomas’ first album that features musicians outside of her circle of family and friends. It also features special guest Ed Harcourt (not credited in the liner notes for some reason) dueting with Thomas on “Let It Be Me”, which, according to the All Music Guide, has been released in almost 500 different incarnations. Did it have to be recorded again? Probably not. It certainly didn’t have to be sequenced where it is in the album.
After the initial shape-shifting Thomas partakes in during the first handful of tracks, she settles into a light-rock rut that gives the album a sleepy, bedtime feel. The risks taken in the early part of the album give way to secure, safe territory. The songs are never unpleasant, but they don’t reach the highs achieved by the first few songs. Let me put it this way, if this CD were played in a coffee shop, people probably wouldn’t lower the volume of their conversations. There’s beauty in many of the later songs, especially the closer, “Tomorrow”, but the pace never quickens and the melodies are never demanding of the listener. They’re also rarely as reliable and memorable as the earlier melodies.
It all sounds amazing, though. Production work by Mike Busbee is superb. He never allows the songs to become sappy. The instruments are always warm and inviting. The occasional strings are classy additions instead of overwhelming excess. But even great sounds can’t revive tired-sounding songs.
Thomas may have been perfect for a second- or third-tier Lilith Fair stage, a place where people expect slow, introspective, sweet songwriting. However, if she hopes to capture a larger audience, she may want to first capture herself a faster metronome.