Album Review: Beth Thornley, Wash U Clean

[from MadeLoud, December 28, 2009]

On Wash U Clean, Beth Thornley moves fluidly between funk, pop, gentle balladry and arena-sized anthems, all centered around the songstress’ flinty vocals and a mostly piano-driven palette of arrangements. Yet as the singer flaunts her fluency across styles and genres, a recurring theme arises in the form of a question: musically speaking, who is Beth Thornley?

Is she the playful funk goddess throwing down on the title track? Her hilarious lame-love-as-a-carburetor (a carburetor!) metaphor and menacing fire-and-gasoline chorus revel in an almost Vaudevillian swoon, Thornley’s vocals both scolding and dismissing at once while the baritone sax keeps the swagger alive long after she runs out of admonishments. Yet just as Wash asserts itself, the Beatles-esque “Still Can’t Hide,” excellent piano ballad “Everyone Falls” and swirling pop of “It’s Me” throw the whole strut out the window in favor of a seemingly more delicate direction. Then, no sooner has she reestablished herself as a more traditional pop talent than the whole process repeats itself through the high-octane guitar and rumbling bass of “You’re So Pony,” an early candidate for 2010’s most nonsensical, totally compelling pop-rocker. But as soon as “You’re So Pony”‘s last cries of excellence fade, Thornley swings even further in the opposite direction, first through the quiet piano shuffle of “What The Heart Wants” and on through the equally quiet, slightly less shuffling “Never Your Girl.” And again, having retrenched in dour singer/songwriter territory, Thornley ends on a more upbeat note in the Harry Nilsson bounce of “A to Z.”

Taken on their own, the songs of Wash U Clean stand up quite well; Thornley and producer Rob Cairns continually show a flair for the innovative and a love of the dramatic, be it the string flourishes in “A to Z” or the masterful use of the E-Bow in “Everyone Falls” – with the guitar line giving Thornley’s wounded vocals a compelling harmony without even a word spoken. But where Wash U Clean ultimately stumbles is in Thornley and Cairns’ kitchen-sink approach to the album’s sound — even while individual tracks may benefit from the obviously considerable amount of attention paid them, the duo’s insistence on making an overtly varied album holds them back; by trying to do everything at once on a larger level, they’ve overshadowed a set of songs all capable of shining without outside help.