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Thea Gilmore

RULES FOR JOKERS (Compass)  •  Thea Gilmore

Several years ago, during a TV interview, David Crosby noted that John Lennon's work was bitter, Paul McCartney's was sweet, and together they were "bittersweet"--which, he added, is the best flavor of all.

If that's so, then Crosby's gonna LOVE Thea Gilmore! On her U.S. debut, Rules for Jokers, the Irish/Anglo singer songwriter tenderly coos catchy melodies that pull you in like a warm embrace, along with edgy lyrics that may give you chills. Think the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde working in a semi-unplugged vein and you'll have some idea of what to expect.

Speaking of the Pretenders, Hynde's mid 80s lead guitarist, Robbie McIntosh, who also toured with Paul McCartney in the late 80s and early 90s, provides some of the guitar work on Rules for Jokers. The album is divided between bouncy folk rock, and quiet, spare ballads colored in with keyboards that wheeze in a sea-shanty breeze, haunting cellos and assorted oddities (e.g., kalimba, didgeridoo, jaw harp, and griddle pan!). But impressive as the music is, it's her poetry that'll make you sit up and take notice of Gilmore.

At first, your head will instinctively bob along to the "Subterranean Homesick Blues"-like "This Girl is Taking Bets." But it'll suddenly pause in response to lyrics like "This girl is the wild smile, the icy stare / She's the crackle of the static / She's the curses, she's the prayers / This girl is the junkie in the children's matinee / She's the 4-minute warning / She is hell to pay." Gilmore will soften you up with her tender performance of "Holding Your Hand," until she knocks you down with her warning, "I'm gonna haunt you / On every knife edge / Every trip / And on every needle tip."

Gilmore's work may seem a little too confrontational to some. She was just 21 years old when she released Rules for Jokers in the UK last year. Personally, I hope her work doesn't lose its jagged edge as she matures. In an age when too many women singer songwriters are either the musical equivalent of a wussy-wuss "chick flick" or feminist/lesbian icons whose concerts inevitably devolve into karaoke nights, Gilmore proves that bittersweet is, indeed, a delicious--if acquired--taste.  • BARRY GUTMAN

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