Whether or not one wants to believe the hype surrounding Sandi Thom's supposedly grassroots method of getting herself a record deal -- there's plenty of controversy and conspiracy theory surrounding it (read her bio for details) -- or not, is immaterial. The intensity and arrogance of the hype from her American label which issued weekly press releases to let us know we were ignorant and lived under a rock if we didn't know about her or her alleged miracle of world- and chart- conquering method of arriving at her deal hasn't helped. (After all, Ani DiFranco did the whole thing herself and still hasn't needed a major -- she's turned every one of them down repeatedly -- to make herself a career and inspired thousands to do so themselves.)
Ultimately then, it all comes down to the music. Does Thom have it on her debut, Smile...It Confuses People, or doesn't she? As for the single, it's a hopelessly naïve, cleverly worded musical ditty that is reminiscent of something used to sell European automobiles. After all, one of the things Thom chooses to forget, or perhaps really doesn't know, is that her prime minister and our president, the very people who plunged the world into crisis, are members of that baby boom generation she so romanticizes. This song may have topped the charts in the fickle and music-tabloid driven U.K., but it won't here. It's forgettable in a way that any tune by Gnarls Barkley isn't. Far more interesting are the big, slick pop melodies of "Lonely Girl" and the utterly stunning "Sunset Borderline," which begin as simple acoustic songs and become big, swirling numbers that touch on '70s female singer/songwriter empathy and insight, and touch upon the Lou Adler- and Arif Mardin-produced pop records that jumped to the top of the charts. In other words, the production -- by the Mighty Vibrations, Rick Parkhouse, and her oh-so-savvy manager Ian Brown -- is very slick, calculated to make every one of theses tunes a single. There's nothing naïve in Thom's voice; she's a studied singer who understands the kinds of emotions that are carried by dynamic and timbre; in other words, she's a top-notch vocalist. Other tracks that stand out here are the jaunty "Little Remedy," the moving "Castles," and the rootsy "What If I'm Right" which is reminiscent of both Michelle Branch and Meredith Brooks. We only get a real taste of Thom somewhat unadorned on "Superman" and the album's closer "Time." What these two tracks prove is that while her songs don't begin to touch those of the very writers she so idolizes, Smile is a first record nonetheless and it will take time to develop her writing -- three or four albums most likely -- and to establish herself as a writer as well as a singer (and let's hope her label, so quick to crown her the "next big thing," believes in her enough to nurture what is most certainly a real talent). A lot depends on how strong-willed she is and how well-intentioned her management is. If managed properly, she will grow and become the artist she seems so badly to want to be. If not, she will be as forgotten as those two female singer/songwriters mentioned above. Smile...It Confuses People is an auspicious if not completely realized debut by a real -- if raw -- talent with some truly fine music on it. Don't believe the hype, believe the music, it tells the real story.