A Thea Thing

Intensity and independence, 'not to mention the visceral thrill of the music,' sends one looking for more Thea Gilmore.

I first heard Thea Gilmore a few years ago on a noncommercial New York station. The song was "Mainstream," and it was a pull-off-to-the-side of the road moment, especially if you were driving.

Like all such eureka experiences, "Mainstream" was both utterly familiar and completely original. The long verses had some of the quick-witted alliterative rhymes that run like a river through Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Gilmore's language was both erudite angry, occasionally abstract: You have to pause to think about a line like, "Angels in the abattoir junking up a good guitar."

But in the hooky chorus, she's in your face (or, perhaps, the face in the mirror), polite but direct, demanding a choice: "Are you gonna swim the
mainstream? Or are you gonna make like lightning?"

Her defiance, delivered with a proudly assertive Anglo-Irish accent, has not made her natural for mass popularity. But I identified with her intensity and independence, not to mention the visceral thrill of the music, and I began searching for more.

"Mainstream" appears on "Avalanche," the 2003 studio album that is her most "produced" to date, and her most furious. There are references to addiction, self-destruction, and a kind of anger that could suffocate a lesser artist. Consider "Razor Valentine." It's a funereal piece so gripping and obsessive ("I love you like the last shot at the bottom of a bottle") that it makes a grizzled survivor like Marianne Faithfull sound innocent as Kelly Clarkson.

This summer her U.S. label, Compass Records, released two of Gilmore's earlier albums that had only been out in the U.K. on indie Flying Spark Records.

"Songs From the Gutter" and "Loftmusic" are worthy complements, reinforcing each other's self-portraits of Gilmore as a rebel with a purpose.

"Songs From the Gutter" is not "live" as much as it is spontaneous, "light on rehearsal and short on edits," featuring Gilmore, a batch of tunes she wanted to record, and her elite corps of commandos: producer, guitarist and keyboard player Nigel Stonier, drummer Paul Beavis and former Pretenders' and Paul McCartney guitarist Robbie McIntosh. The Pretenders' connection shouldn't surprise: Gilmore often sounds like she's kicking down the door Chrissie Hynde opened.

Gilmore's "Gutter" vision is dark, cold, yet rapturous. "Down to Nowhere" sounds as if Leonard Cohen's years of meditation have resulted in his transformation into a (now) 26-year-old woman from Oxfordshire. She dons no disguises: "Dirt is Your Lover Now" requires no further explanation or analysis. It isn't a metaphor; it sounds like the truth.

Perhaps I haven't quite conveyed how pleasurable Gilmore's music can be, the way songs "Lip Reading" and "Heart String Blues" rock with the articulate rage of young Elvis Costello. Gilmore, at her rocking best, conveys emotions too dangerous to express yourself, yet makes you feel like you're part of a community with a mission. She seems to know we're in a culture war that's older than she is, now facing a fierce counterattack by fanatics who hadn't yet crushed the artistic freedom and struggle for human dignity that are remnants of the 1960s worth defending.

Though born in 1979, this old soul makes herself part of a more committed generation in her strategic choice of covers. On "Song from the Gutter," she covers Dylan ("I Thought I Saw St. Augustine"), Springsteen ("Cover Me") and the Clash ("I'm Not Down)."

Where Gilmore takes her great leap is on the album "Loftmusic," an entire album of covers that show off her range and taste, and rock'n'roll family values.

You don't have to be a mad collector to grasp what Gilmore finds special about Van Morrison's "Crazy Love," or Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising." One is reassured by the tenderness with which she addresses both very different songs.

But the girl who likes to stretch out with her band as if she was riding Crazy Horse on some of her more bristling rockers picks a Neil Young song, "The Old Laughing Lady," and a Paul Westerberg tune, "Hide'n'Seekin'," that only obsessives would likely know.

And even knowing Thea has a punk rock heart, the element of surprise makes it hard to immediately grasp that the opening tune is the Buzzcocks' "Ever Fallen in Love," or that the fabulous pure pop song on track four, "Don't Come Close," is from deep in the Ramones' repertory.

It wasn't until I heard "Don't Come Close" just a few months ago that I discovered just how deeply this gifted woman had taken residence in my room of secret pleasures. For me, listening to Gilmore is like having a long conversation with someone you've just met, and though you both know you've got other places to be, you just can't stop talking.