Beth Thornley – S/T

Beth Thornley is the kind of songwriter, sort of like Elvis Costello, who packs so much into her lyrics they almost burst free of the song that contains them, lines barely fitting the meter, as though any minute she’ll put down her guitar and just start explaining it all to you. But where Costello’s lyrics can leave you dizzy with wordplay, for Thornley this style often results in awkward bits of phrasing and clunky delivery. Thornley writes mainly of relationships that are either over or seemingly doomed to some kind of crash. In “Lucky You,” from her eponymous debut album, she sings of having to keep one guy “full of booze and seconal” and doesn’t seem all that upset about it. Unfortunately, the same song ends with a strange bit of sung-spoken dialogue over a fading-out coda, with her voice so high in the mix that the first time I heard it, I was startled enough to think someone had walked into my room and was talking to me. It was a little alarming, to say the least. Those odd bits of less-than-slick production are just a part of the indie rock experience, I suppose, but they do serve to highlight the bits that do work well, like the harmonics and bright chords that open the album’s second track, “You Made It So.”
Thornley writes with a mature sense of resignation toward the complexities of life and romance, the kind of Aimee Mann sensibility that borders on but rarely falls full-force into bitterness. Unfortunately, this outlook too often gets packed into awkward or simplistic couplets that the masters of the form (and mood), Ms. Mann and Mr. Costello, have the artistry to avoid. In fact, at times Ms. Thornley seems almost to be quoting Ms. Mann: “Sunshine and Celluloid” opens, “I guess I have been taken by a pro,” more or less echoing the opening line of Mann’s “Driving Sideways.”
Perhaps it’s unfair to hold Thornley up to the standards of those two, and it’s a relief that musically she charts a different course than either one. Trained in classical piano in her Birmingham, Alabama childhood, Thornley rejects that background almost entirely in favor of a straighforward alt-rock sensibility, more like Juliana Hatfield’s lo-fi rock records.
Overall, the playing on Thornley’s songs tends to blend into a not-unpleasant but mostly unimaginative undercurrent below her singing. The one break from the usual guitar-bass-drum drone is the inspired dobro playing on “How Many Days.” Her voice is fine, though it often feels held back by the studio, as if she would be really belting it out if she were onstage. All of this combines to leave the impression of the songs blending into one another, and when it’s over you’re left wondering when some songs ended and others began.
This album is a debut release, and hopefully as Thornley goes on she’ll branch out a little musically while continuing to sharpen the mordant wit that could turn her into a great young songwriter in the not-too-distant future.