Cayley Thomas first came to my notice a little over a year ago with a small gesture she made while playing Calphurnia in Freewill Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. At the time I suggested she was an actor to watch carefully.
I may have been wrong.
After spending a few days listening to her newly released EP Ash Mountains, I think maybe Thomas is a young singer/songwriter worth listening to carefully.
Did anyone ever buy Broken English because they were struck by Marianne Faithfull’s turn as Ophelia? Well, to be honest, I bought Ash Mountains just because of Thomas’ performances at Freewill. I figured if I didn’t enjoy it, I’d at least be supporting a local artist’s work – always a worthwhile little effort.
First I paid a token amount to download the five songs from Bandcamp and gave them a quick listen. They didn’t grab me too tightly at first distracted and interrupted listen, but the ethereal, kinda hippy, bluesy introspective pieces didn’t chase me away. When the CD dropped a few days later, I shelled out the same amount to get a copy of the very nicely packaged little product. I was charmed immediately by the little bonus: a hand lettered thank you heart!
This kind of personal touch makes supporting local developing artists worth the cost and more, even if the product isn’t always polished or remarkable.
But, you know what? Ash Mountains is pretty darn polished and really, I’m starting to think it’s a pretty remarkable début.
Here are my rough Notes from first dedicated listen:
It’s a narrative of concrete images ending in ambiguity. “I found you bloody on the ground” is sung with a wonderful subtle tear in Thomas’ voice.
Opens with an audible little smile.
Mellow inactivity with stripped down sound and then a jump to activity hiding away with guitar (Curtis Ross) going a lot fuzzy and epicly 70s. Thomas has the power in her voice to hold her own against the little wall of sound. And then a quiet bit of “nothing to do but rest”
Oh, look. There’s a video now!
Hippy-folk, spaghetti western. But it’s a metaphor, an allegory “Bank of human hearts” — what did she do after she was robbed of her man?
Torchy western — the Cayley Thomas Gang of Human-Heart-Bank robbers. But there’s a vulnerability in Cayley’s voice. I can’t help thinking of “These Boots” — Nancy Sinatra — but fresh. And a better singer. By a mile. And astronomically better words. And probably better dancing on the video.
An expressionistic collection of nautical images creating a metaphor of doomed relationships. The music, however, continues a sort of western movie soundtrack vibe, sort of Spanish/Mexican/Crusaders/horsemen riding in the fading light. But I also somehow am reminded of Brecht and Weill’s “Seeräuber Jenny”, not because of any specific details but in the expressionistic use of maritime imagery as that metaphor of doomed relationships.
A good old relaxed torchy song, blues, but not really feeling too blue about things. A great farewell closing piece.
Now some thoughts after multiple listens:
It’s like the goal is melancholy, but happiness somehow always shines through in Thomas’ voice. She’s having such a good time making music, it’s hard not to get caught up in the joy yourself, no matter the justification for the blues.
On a negative note, sometimes the rythm section (Todd Andrews on Bass and Ily Barnes drumming) feels a pit ponderous — I’m listing to “Bandit” just now. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not the playing skill but rather the arrangement that bothered me. On “Shipwreck”, however, the section drives you along. “Shipwreck” just feels brilliant and I don’t want it to stop! And on “Blue Summer” the bass and drums are a warm, pleasant heart-beat.
“Hideaway” is a marvelous construction, perhaps the standout of the collection. Its quiet, restful opening exposition of the lovely, peaceful moment that must be preserved is quite literally hidden away by the majority of the song, a melodically shouted vow that she will “hide you away” and a wall of fuzz guitar. And then, the simple, quite close: “Sunday/Sunday morning with you/we got nothing to do/but rest”. Marvelously economical musical poetry!
I had a lot of trouble placing Ash Mountains initially. I thought of Dream Academy’s self conscious 60s sound, but it didn’t really fit except in its moodiness, and I thought of Holly Cole, and I thought of the Blues in general and I thought of movie soundtracks and I thought of The Three Penny Opera. I even thought of “These Boots” for goodness sake! But I think I have to come back to a little note I made when first listening to the jump from “Bandit” to “Shipwreck”: “Cayley’s exploring”.
I think, in the end, Ash Mountains must be seen as Thomas’ exploration of the space of her voice, her writing, and her influences. She’s leapt out of the nest and, in my opinion, although she falters once or twice, she’s done a bit of soaring on this first flight. Again I’ll say, Cayley Thomas is an artist to watch. Goodness knows what she’ll do next!
I’m not sure why I feel I need to make this full disclosure, but . . .
I have never met or spoken to Cayley Thomas or any of her band or production team. Above are the genuine, honest thoughts of some regular guy who’s seen Cayley Thomas acting on stage precisely twice and listened to her EP countless times now.