Rosie Thomas Wears Her Heart on Your Sleeve
Seattle-based Rosie Thomas recently released a wonderful and delicate little record of country-twee campfire folk-rock called These Friends of Mine. It's taken a few listens to grow on me, though Rosie's music's never been something I listen to all at once; that would be like eating a bag of marshmallows. But it's clearly the best album she's made yet, and hopefully the fact that Damien Jurado, Pedro the Lion's David Bazan, former Sunny Day Real Estate frontguy Jeremy Enigk, Denison Witmer and some dude named Sufjan Stevens play all over the thing will help bring it to a larger audience.
Thomas is a singer-songwriter whose work falls into that ever-expanding category of indie-rockers who are Christian but choose to make music outside the Christian rock scene. Even though their faith clearly inspires their music and it's a major subtext of the stuff, it's not the outright subject of it, and they choose not to be defined and limited solely by the fact of their faith. I choose to cover such bands on a purely subjective basis; when they're great, I'll totally cover them. The issue of what is and what is not a Christian rock record has been around at least since the talented (and Jewish) Norman Greenbaum had a huge hit with the baby-boomer Jesus-rock classic "Spirit in the Sky" back in the late '60s (the dawn of hippie Christian music with then-scandalous musicians like Lamb and Keith Green following shortly thereafter). Since, then, it's gotten harder to define Christian rock, rather than easier.
Have you ever tried to explain that a band who recorded a straight-ahead disc of Ramones covers is Christian because the members publicly call themselves Christian and release their work on a label that solely releases Christian music? I'm not saying that the album (File Under Ramones by the Huntingtons, on Tooth And Nail, 1999) is not Christian — in a dizzyingly postmodern way, of course it is — but I will say that it's not particularly good. So I don't see what is to keep me from including certain inventive and excellent works which might otherwise fall outside the Christian music realm, records that are not going to be covered in CCM magazine simply because the artists do not jump up and down so loudly and clearly about their faith.
So, Rosie Thomas is a Christian (folk) rocker, though she never really shouts it out loud. She never shouts about anything, really (her music is more in the Joni Mitchell/ James Taylor/ Sam Beam mold). Rosie's close pal Sufjan takes the same approach to his music, and thankfully the super-talented dude guest stars all over Rosie's new record, These Friends of Mine. The two do an incredibly cute/ stripped-down cover of R.E.M.'s "The One I Love" as a vocal duet with heavy vocal multi-tracking at the end. The album's other cover, Fleetwood Mac's "Songbird," is gorgeous and perfect, and might even be an improvement over the original. The slight shades of strings lurking underneath her voice, which is always in the forefront throughout the album, embody Witmer, Thomas, Stevens and Josh Myers 'thoughtful and restrained production.
I continue to be surprised that so many literate singer-songwriters (Bazan, Jurado, Enigk, Thomas) in this sort-of-Christian vein are each so talented and all hail from the Pacific Northwest. Rosie Thomas was in a band called Velour 100 in the '90s (and unless you are her biggest fan in the world, you probably don't need to hear them). After guesting on a Damien Jurado song, his label, Sub Pop, signed Rosie. Though she fit in well with the label's new direction towards more subtle and folky music (Iron and Wine, Fruit Bats), she left after three records of subdued pop music.
Rosie's kind of a weird bird, something you really notice if you ever see her do stand-up under her stage name, Sheila Saputo. As Sheila, she comes out in a neck brace and huge taped-together glasses sporting a thick Midwestern accent. She prattles on and on nervously like some water cooler chit-chat that suddenly just got very weird; it used to be about Leo DiCaprio a lot, although lately Sheila's more into I Love Lucy. There are shades of Andy Kaufman at play here. As an April Fool's gag last year, she got the venerated indie-rock website Pitchfork to print that she was pregnant with Sufjan Stevens 'baby. I mention this because there are little studio snippets with dialogue and a lot of laughter in-between a few of the tunes. Their inclusion would be cute and cloying in almost anyone else's hands, but they just show the true joy that these people clearly had in making this record. Also, you get to hear how incredibly high-pitched Rosie's voice is when she speaks, like some super-happy little cartoon mouse or something. Her singing voice, in marked contrast, is both delicate and strong, wonderfully in service of her earnest songs of falling in love with the whole world.