Classically trained Canadian Priya Thomas has been in the music biz since her 1996 debut, “In The Throes of the Microscope,” but I confess that her upcoming 2008 release, “Blood Heron,” is the first I’ve heard of her. And I couldn’t wait to tell you about it.
Opening track, “Your Guitar, My Undoing,” is the most mainstream song on the album, with a steady beat and a classic rock feel, sung like Lou Reed on “New York.” The normalcy is deceptive, though, because under it is an alt-rock feel, a slightly behind-the-beat strum, and layers of vocals that seem to pile higher as the song reaches its climax. On “Had I Known, I Would Have Declined,” Ms. Thomas sinks a little deeper. She’s still using the classic song, but now she’s closer to Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” period; but there’s a fuzzy, bassy noise in the background, and about halfway through she interrupts herself with voice that sounds like Sam Philips, showing range and charm. It’s almost like doing rounds of Row Row Row Your Boat: It feels like it all fits together, but something is slightly off. And then the song ends, suddenly, abruptly, like it fell off a shelf.
As the album continues, increasing amounts of ambient noise and dissonant harmony are introduced in a wonderful, jumbled mess. It’s as if each song was broken down into component parts and then all the parts were put in a pile and new songs were assembled, using pieces from a variety of sources. It’s not an easy record to hear, but to listen is an experience. In a world where so many female singers make little more than background music, here’s a songwriter who is not afraid to stand up in front, take risks, and challenge her listeners. She’s got a beautiful voice, but she’s willing to sound ugly when it fits the song. And she can write uncompromising, half-broken songs as good as Tom Waits or anyone else.
For fans of: Marnie Stern, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Beck, Radiohead. And if that’s an eclectic group, there’s a reason: Priya’s songs travel through each of these regions, seamlessly, combining sounds you’ve never heard before with ones that are intensely familiar.
This is an extraordinary album.