Sunday, May 31, 2009

Anna Thomas’ stunning first outing: Splash of Red

I’ve been following the development of North Texas performing songwriter, Anna Thomas, for almost a year now. She has just released her first EP, Splash of Red, a locally produced venture. I have to say, I’m completely impressed.

Usually when you listen to a small regional release, you find yourself having to make a lot of excuses for shortcomings in the music, production and arrangement. Not so on this one, where the recording and production contain both elegant simplicity and intelligent complexity—all in just the right measure and at just the right time. To sweeten the deal, there isn’t a lame cut on the whole release. The big leaguers don’t even do that most of the time.

I had a feeling come over me when I first listened to this CD, and I can remember the exact moment I last had the same feeling. It was when I put Steely Dan’s Aja on the turntable for the first time and listened to it through some pricey headphones. The texture was perfect; the music engaging, snarky and just challenging enough (I mean all of that in a good way), with little musical surprises that made you feel like the artist was letting you in on something, if you would just listen. Splash of Red hit me just like that.

Anna must be an old soul. I haven’t told you yet that she is merely 13 years old. That means she’s just getting started, which excites me no end. If this is how she’s starting her career, my God, she will be a joy to watch if she decides to continue to develop her art.

The lyrics are very sophisticated for anyone’s age. You could compare her sound to Coby Calais, but she does some more interesting turns in her voice that I haven’t heard anywhere else, and her advanced musical and lyrical tendencies surpass the pop star category. The teens may get pulled into it, but I see her demographic as older and a bit more discerning than even, say, the average light jazz listener. This may limit Ms. Thomas’ following a bit, but mark my word, if she sticks with it her following will be rabid for her sound and her future releases.

Finally, some credit goes to a few people helping Anna perfect her sound and her recordings. This is not to take away one ounce of her talent, but every picture needs a great frame—and she has more than one. Front and center is Matthew Gaskins, a remarkable musician with a Masters Degree out of North Texas University. That’s impressive enough, but Mr. Gaskins is more phenomenon than mere musician. He has not only mastered a number of instruments—including his voice—but understands the holistic arc of a production and its arrangement. He collaborated with Ms. Thomas on the arrangements of all the songs, and produced Little Red and My Circle.

The songs Bleached, Trace of Light, and Break Apart were produced by Salim Nourallah, one of Mr. Gaskins colleagues. Mr. Nouralla’s production style on all of the instruments and vocals appears to be, “If it doesn’t need it [an effect], then don’t use it.” The dry, minimalist result is stunning, but only because Ms. Thomas is good enough to pull it off. I’ve been encouraged to try the same approach on my own material, and the idea scares me to death! Maybe after hearing Splash of Red, I’ll get inspired to try it myself.

Behind the scenes is another remarkable person, Ms. Thomas’ father, Scott Thomas. Scott is a wonderfully flashy bassist who was generous enough to play on my last EP, Rock the Big House Down. If Mr. Thomas is a “stage dad,” he’s a very gentle one. He’s been smart enough to stay out of the way of his daughter and her collaborators, only recommending ideas in the most gentle way, and letting the art develop like a mushroom instead of a project.

If there is room for improvement, it will be in Ms. Thomas live delivery. Having said that, a recent performance demonstrated that she is on an improving trend as we speak. It has nothing to do with the quality of her singing, which is confident and convincing the majority of the time. It more has to do with the “selling” of her songs, which starts from the minute you begin to introduce the number and follows through to the final notes. It’s all headed in the right direction though, and one of the more interesting developments has been watching her weave her very dry, understated humor into her act. I think once people “get” her and she works into a really comfortable zone, that we are going to be completely blown away. That’s as opposed to mostly blown away, which is where we are now.