REVIEW: Rosie Thomas: When We Were Small
Rosie Thomas: When We Were Small [Subpop, 2002]
Three words? Songs of beauty.
When We Were Small opens with gently strummed guitar, a soft, road-song beat, and then- and then- she begins to sing.
"I put my favorite white dress on / and my two dollar shoes / tie my hair up the way you like / make you see that I'm still in love with you." ("2 Dollar Shoes")
It is bliss.
Rosie Thomas' voice is high and free, with a tangible softness. Unlike the work of Kathryn Williams or Julie Doiron, Thomas also sings with a strength and confidence; in the triumphant "Wedding Day", the word flow out with a resilient force, dancing up and over the rising organ-and-guitar melody. The songs flow like milk from her throat, miasma wrapping itself around cadences, emotion mingling with beautiful, beautiful sound.
Rosie Thomas has appeared before, on Damien Jurado's Ghost of David, but this is her solo debut and rather than showcasing the Gillian Welch-like alt.country style displayed on Jurado duets such as "Rosewood Casket", Thomas presents a more conventional, pop aesthetic. While this is in some ways disappointing (one can only imagine the lilting melancholy Thomas could inject into avant garde folk of Songs:Ohia, for instance), it is often satisfying. Thomas works the tropes of the Lilith Fair set, incorporating a layer of sonic subtlety and surprising melodic turns. The mournful, almost dirge-like "Finish Line" blossoms into a soft birdsong: "Never really worry for a bit / sometimes it feels worse than it really is."
We encounter the full range of styles and sentiments on When We Were Small, from the angular violin of "I Run", recalling some - but not too much - of Tori Amos, to the joyous, throw-your-head-back-in-the-convertible aesthetic of "Wedding Day", to the veiled acid of the pretty, guitar-plucked "October". If the album has a flaw it is that none of these is quite able to escape the beauty of Thomas' voice - once struck by its nightingale loveliness, it's hard to be further arrested by the music: it flows too easily into background. Besides the difficulty of some of the vocal parts, Thomas isn't really taking any chances here, and although her songwriting is consistently fine, it lacks any moments of brilliance. There are no turns of phrase to knock you flat or particularly reward the patient listener.
Regardless of these criticisms, however, When We Were Small is one of the best debuts in a long time, and Thomas does a fine job of uniting her respect for gorgeous, radio-worthy songwriting and the demands of the semi-indie aesthetic. This album is entirely lovely.