Unassuming songstress broadens pastel-colored sonic palette
Privy only to the precious-sounding title of her third album, one might surmise that folk-leaning Seattle singer/songwriter Rosie Thomas hasn’t strayed far from the approach characterizing her first two offerings; that of the timid-but-likeable girl in the corner with the striped knee-highs finally working up the nerve to open her journal and divulge—in relatively bare-bones musical fashion—her buried fears, hopes and questions. Her newest record, If Songs Could Be Held, is no less charming, and represents a step forward. And even if her artistic leaps aren’t entirely Evel Knievel-like, they’re both significant and welcome.
Take her voice, for starters, which is still more Joni Mitchell and Sarah McLachlan (particularly during her double-tracked vocal passages) than, say, the avant-garde, four-octave exploits of Diamanda Galás. Thomas nonetheless throws a greater amount of mobility and oomph into her dulcet delivery—note, for example, the flitting falsetto opening of “Pretty Dress” before she slides down to the song’s sonorous, eminently memorable chorus.
And just as Thomas’s vocal range widens, so does her instrumental palette. Whereas, on previous discs, acoustic guitars or piano were often recorded with little augmentation, these 11 tracks feature thicker arrangements, although they don’t clutter or suffocate the melodies. Strings buoy the piano-led “Guess It May” and the aforementioned “Pretty Dress” without feeling schmaltzy; a bed of brass hums beneath the pretty, torchy “Say What You Want”; and even the most delicate numbers usually find room for a little guitar line or some organ. Granted, the album doesn’t sound quite as intimate as its two predecessors, but that has as much to do with Thomas’s lyrical decisions as her evolving sonics. Rather than take her typical, confessional approach to songwriting, here she adds a handful of fictional narratives to her repertoire (“Loose Ends,” “Time Goes Away”). Still, detaching herself from the experiences she depicts hardly renders her songs less powerful or beautiful; if anything, it brings her just as close to finding (and transmitting) meaning within her explorations of love, loss, mortality and transcendence—as does her usual soul-baring approach.