on 10 November 2006
Actually, I don't like reviewing Thea's CDs...it always sounds like fanatical hero-worship rather than a clear-headed musical review, which must be off-putting to some people new to her music. The problem is, she really is both one of the finest songwriters Britain has produced, and one its best kept secrets.
Her third album, "Rules For Jokers", is the most overtly folk-influenced, with acoustic guitars all over the place. But of course this is `folk' with a punk's attitude; Cross Sandy Denny's voice with vintage Elvis Costello songwriting, and you're sort of close. Thea is quite incapable of making an album that is anything less than dazzling, but this was the one that really catapulted her into a league of her own, redefining just how fantastic a great album can be.
From the opening track, Thea comes roaring over the horizon like an Apparition of an Old Testament prophet, via "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall", with an apocalyptic vision of a decaying Britain. The deranged rockabilly "This Girl is Taking Bets" finds her in the far end of the graveyard up where the nettles grow, rattling off a litenay of indelible images, while she spits at the vacuousness of modern culture in "Benzadrine", amid slashing acoustic guitars. Key line: "Your pop-picked junkies and their global saccharine/Give us something stronger til we all join in again". Amen.
Unsupringsingly, fluffy little love songs hold no truck with Thea: "Holding Your Hand" equates loves with drug addiction in a terrifying whisper over a sparse acoustic guitar, although the anti-romantic stocism of "Movie Kisses" is counterbalanced by the sad fragility of the background. When, on the latter, she sighs "let's give this love a heart-attack", the moment truly is heart-breaking.
"St Lukes Summer" is a queasy shanty that recalls Swordfishtrombone-era Tom Waits, and point forward to the treated sounds on "Avalanche". The wonderful "Keep Up" is buried away late in the procedings, shuffling along on an itching beat, as Thea casts her scathing eye over consumerist society, knowing that you'll be six foot down before you catch up with the Jones's. The sparkliest jewel in the crown, however, is the marvellous "Saviours And All" is a slab of country-rock sunshine, all breezy harmonica and sing-along chorus. It should have `hit record' lovingly scrawled all over it - but, of course, it never was. A similar fate befell "Fever Beats" (ommited from initial pressings, so check before you buy!), a euphoric New-Wavish three-minute nugget of perfection, and, for my money, Thea's best single.
To be a truly unique poet or artiste requires linguistic eloquence, razor-sharp observation, and, above all, something unique, original and urgent to say. With "Rules For Jokers", Thea delivers in spades. An album for which even five stars doesn't seem adequate.