Album: Thea Gilmore

Avalanche, Hungry Dog

With this, her fifth album in as many years, Thea Gilmore takes the final step to the forefront of British singer-songwriters, with 12 songs that establish her as the most prolific and intelligent wordsmith of her generation.

Raised on her parents' records - a high- protein audio diet of Dylan, Joni and The Beatles - she displays a natural, easy command of the classic folk-rock vernacular. Sometimes the influences are a little too unvarnished: with its rap-sung style and lines such as "Boys get out your Balzac, the empire's gonna strike back/ The critics and the diplomats are living in a tin shack", her "Mainstream" crouches in the massive shadow of "Subterranean Homesick Blues", but it's sharp nevertheless, embellished with some tasty National slide guitar from Robbie McIntosh. Likewise, the gruff presence of Tom Waits lurks openly in the title and treatment of "Razor Valentine", which finds Gilmore admitting, "I love you like a drunk/ At the sound of closing time".

It's hard, though, to avoid a modicum of such references in a (now) well-developed genre, and by way of compensation, Gilmore's best songs manage to deal provocatively with a range of contemporary ills, from organised religion ("Have you heard that the Messiah/ Went and joined the other side?") in "Have You Heard", to the title track's attack on the Pop Idol-infested cultural landscape. To the steady, fatalistic tread of cello and glockenspiel, she queries whether tabloid gossip and corporate-sponsored party culture can equip the young for a tough future, mocking the pre-packaged nature of today's acceptable youth protest: "Well, they sold you back your outrage/ In a neat little shrink-wrap and a beautiful face". The Dylanesque diatribe "Heads Will Roll" similarly asserts, "There's no new ground being broken/ You're just doing as you're told".

The producer Nigel Stonier's arrangements are impeccably contemporary, too, whether he's surrounding Gilmore with a Daniel Lanois-esque ambient-folk fog, as on "Pirate Moon", or blending mechanistic, sequenced beats with the more organic textures of cello, Hammond organ and McIntosh's bluesy guitar parts, as on "Apparition #13". Again, the angular percussion can be too forcefully distracting on a song such as "Rags and Bones" (as can the line, "It's a far cry from the shackles of cognitive thought", the album's one clinker), but the balance is expertly struck on "Avalanche". And lest one worry that she's working at a rate which even Ryan Adams might envy, she assures us in "Juliet (Keep That In Mind)" that she's fully aware of the danger of burn-out; she knows there remain "watches to unwind, and ladders still to climb".

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