On the receiving end of a rather cynical backlash following the far-from-surprising rumors that her rags-to-riches method of earning a record contract could have actually been a rather clever PR fairytale, Scottish singer/songwriter Sandi Thom has become something of an outcast since her debut single "I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker" and parent album Smile...It Confuses People both reached number one back in 2006. Without the publicity generated by her now infamous basement webcast backstory, Thom's sophomore album, The Pink and the Lily, sold barely a fraction of its predecessor, while an ill-advised duet with Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond at a recent political event hasn't exactly done wonders for her credibility. Having parted company with Sony, who Thom claimed were forcing her to change lyrics and pursue an unwanted pop direction, her third album, Merchants & Thieves, is her ideal chance to prove to her many detractors that there's more to her than her early attention-grabbing stunt. Released through her own label, Guardian Angels, its 11 tracks make it abundantly clear that she's used her newfound freedom to completely reinvent her sound. Gone are the rather contrived hippie-folk leanings and pretentious titles like "When Horsepower Meant What It Said" of her previous chart-friendly output, and in their place is a self-assured and unexpectedly authentic take on American country-blues which positions her as a younger, Scottish alternative to Bonnie Raitt. Full of Ennio Morricone-style twanging guitars, opening track "Maggie McCall" is a shuffling Wild West-influenced number which could have been lifted from a Quentin Tarantino film, the boogie vibes of "Runaway Train" echo the kind of blistering gospel-rock that Ike & Tina Turner innovated in the '60s, while "This Ol' World" is a convincing, traditional, rootsy stomper featuring guitar virtuoso Joe Bonamassa. Occasionally, Merchants & Thieves tries a bit too hard to convince us of her newfound blues credentials. The title track is an aimless instrumental which only serves to showcase her admittedly impressive skills as a guitarist, while the two-part harmonies of the a cappella "Ghost Town" lack any sort of melody to maintain interest over three minutes. But on the likes of the Southern soul-influenced "Let It Stay," the KT Tunstall-esque "Heart of Stone," and the Nashville ballad "The Sadness," Thom's powerful vocals and heartbreaking lyrics, inspired by her split with fiancé and album co-writer Jake Field, show why her turbulent record label dealings could have been a blessing in disguise. Merchants & Thieves sounds like the record that perhaps Thom wanted to make all along, and even though its gritty bluesy sound is unlikely to reverse her chart fortunes, you get the feeling that she doesn't care either way.
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AllMusic Review by Jon O'Brien