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Thea Gilmore Thea Gilmore
Album: The Counterweight
Label: Cooking Vinyl
Tracks: 13

Right from the start, Thea's always been one of the most proudly, defiantly uncategorisable of those artists tagged with the inevitable (though nowadays increasingly meaningless or uninformative) "singer-songwriter" label. Over the course of just a little under two decades, Thea's produced an extraordinary - and extraordinarily consistent - series of albums that have contained some of the most thought-provoking and perennially savvy lyrics of our age. Thea views The Counterweight, her 15th album, as an intentional companion to what has in retrospect become known as her breakthrough album - her 5th, 2003's Avalanche. It's a companion in the thematic rather than specifically musical sense, primarily due to the hard-hitting socio-political nature of much of its content and its no-holds-barred "plus-ça-change" critique. Its 12 songs are infused with the spirit of extreme political and economic change, of restless turmoil born out of an age that (still) hasn't a clue where it's heading and strikes out (either blindly or misguidedly) at anyone who's trying to do the right thing. Thea's observations are seriously acutely pertinent, and she's a real knack of creatively expressing them through some choice one-liners and unforgettable turns of phrase. Maddeningly simple, almost singsong rhymes (a device that in lesser hands would smack of bad rap or cliché) that here cross-pollinate meanings and inferences through clever, unorthodox or surprising juxtapositions. Thea is simply a very intelligent and compelling songwriter with a brilliant style all her own.

The Counterweight's songs are very much of the moment - and of this moment. They were written during the spring and summer of 2016, and several of them both resonate with and immediately respond to events of that time. The most overt example is the album's final track The War, whose opening and closing verses directly refer to the murder of the Batley MP Jo Cox, leading into and out of a scathing condemnation of what our supposedly-caring society has become; the song's musical setting pits Thea's knowing, composed anger against almost comforting piano chords and spooked apocalypse-electronica. Johnny Gets A Gun is a scary urban nightmare of a man on the edge running amok, written in response to the Florida nightclub shooting. More obliquely perhaps, album opener Fall Together is a plea for togetherness, its relentless earworm piano figure giving way to disturbing, disembodied electro-beats set against swirling strings cocooning Thea's superbly controlled vocal performance. A peculiar marriage of twang and '80s electropop Annie-Lennox-style is recalled on the sensuous Leatherette (sweet dreams were never made of this though). Opening on a quasi-Strawberry-Fields ostinato, Reconcile takes its Europop/potential Brexit metaphors literally to the beat of a succession of typically priceless couplets. The pendulum swing of depression (hiding inside the brightest day) and the climb out past suicidal tendency are represented by the adjacent pair of songs Slow Fade To Black and The Lucky Hum: this is heady and intensely powerful stuff, and you just know Thea's been there - and, thankfully, come out the other side.

It's not all doom, gloom, dystopia and political realism though - we can dream too, as the overwhelming "reach out, I'll be there" sentiment of Rise shows, while the uplifting, feelgood Sounds Good To Me and its revitalised counterpart, the Gloria-Gaynor-like New, both take on a string-loaded disco beat and emerge triumphant. Here's To You is a sanguine, if cautious piano-side toast to how things should be, while the bouncy Another Damn Love Song shows that even the sceptical songwriter can be taken by surprise. The Counterweight to our disaffected, intolerant, divisive society is the reassurance and optimism (and resolute self-empowerment) that can nevertheless be found in abundance in these songs.

Is this folk? Well no. Is it pop or rock? Well not really either. But none of that labelling matters, for Thea just delivers punchy, relevant and intensely stylish songwriting, couched in abundantly creative contemporary musical settings.

David Kidman