14 June 2006

Sandi Thom : A British Folkie You Should Hear

Those of you who read the comments around here may have noticed a few from Sophie, a British radio programmer. Now I don't know Sophie, but I do know this...

(1) British radio is often much more interesting than American

(2) If I had two lives, I would spend one of them hosting a radio show.

With regard to my first point, I'm not saying "interesting" is always the same as "good." I mean, there are presently three songs in the British top twenty about World Cup Soccer, and U.K. audiences frequently send "songs" by annoying cartoons (See: Crazy Frog, Bob the Builder, and Flat Eric) all the way to number one.

But amidst the rubble, there are also plenty of gems. The Brits jumped on Gnarls Barkley first, and they've also figured out that artists like Wheatus, Gabrielle, and Sugababes deserve love.

Right now, however, our brothers and sisters across the pond (please note how many synonyms I'm using in this post) are really striking gold. With any luck, Americans will soon be embracing Sandi Thom.

(Before we go any further, you should really go to her webiste (here) and click on the link in the upper-right hand corner to play the song "I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair)." The rest of this post is useless unless you know the song.)

In just two and half a minutes, Thom makes one of the clearest, most arresting musical statements I've heard in years. Like Tracy Chapman did on her first album, she's using her remarkable singing voice and gift for rhythm to make earnest folk whose idealism is not cut by cynicism.

"I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker" hanuts me because it sounds so alive. There are no guitars on the track. No drums, no piano. All the sounds are initmately connected to the human body. Along wtih Thom's mournful voice, we hear stomping feet and clapping hands, increasing in volume and speed as the song progresses. Even the few instruments--egg shakers and tambourines--require agressive physical movement. Without even listening to the words, I can hear this song's fervent commitment to human connection.

And that idea only deepens with the lyrics. Granted, every generation has its hippie anthems, and Thom isn't straying too far from Chapman or, say, Joni Mitchell.

Who cares, though, if she's a trailblazer? It's appropriate right now for someone to be looking back to seventies punk rockers and sixties hippies (with flowers in their hair) with a sense of longing. We are still in an incredibly ironic age, and Thom's lyrics express a longing for a time when real feeling was celebrated, rather than obfuscated, by the media and the arts.

I can even accept her sentiment more readily because her words don't always make sense. What does it mean, for instance, to wish for a time "when the head of state didn't play guitar?" Against the driving urgency of the music, those strange bits just make Thom sound like a woman who is so consumed by her desire to overcome disconnection that the words are spilling out faster than her thoughts. The song is like a spontaneous emotional utterance. Imagine all the stomping and clapping coming from people who just happened to hear her and then decided to sing along. The track becomes the sound of a community being born.

Yes, I'm a total idealist who rarely gets burdened with cynicism. But few songs bring it out in me this much.

And apparently, Thom's connecting with other people, given that both her single and album have recently topped the British charts.

The biggest irony? She developed a following by broadcasting her music of love, peace, and human interaction over the impersonal wires of the internet. She owes her career to the webcasts of concerts she gave out of her tiny apartment, which eventually attracted over 70,000 web surfers at a time.

I guess that's the state of community in current popular music. If we want to feel like hippies or punk rockers--a group of listeners united by an ideal, however naive or unfocused--then we have to sit alone at our computers.

But maybe, if we realize we're not alone in thinking songs can have meaning or believing that art can have power, we can get outside and meet each other.

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At 5:27 PM, Anonymous Adam said...

Mark, I was hesitant to follow the link, to load up the song just because I'm lazy sometimes but follow the link I did, and load it up I did and the song is indeed haunting and awesome and moving. I too loved the percussion which I didn't realize came from stomping, etc. And I do agree that it's touching to hear something sincere in an age of irony and detachment. Sincerity is underrated. Keep up the great work! I mean that sincerely. Adam.

At 1:48 AM, Blogger DEe said...

I think when she sings "when heads of state didn't play guitar" shes talking about when people in power didn't try as much to manipulate the people by becoming "one of them" and heads of state had an important role and were seen as powerful men.. do i make sense?


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