by Sabrina Cofer (@sabcofer)
Somehow, Brooklyn-based Thelma’s second LP The Only Thing feels like an 80s middle school dance, a secret EDM basement party fueled by energy drinks and LED lights, and a fairytale cottage wonderland with lutes and empire waist dresses. If I were to give this album a physical place, it would be a movie set, these opposing stages constructed in the same building, their sounds bleeding together to create a record that is nostalgic, powerful, and delicate all at once.
How Natasha Jacobs (writer, vocals, synth, guitar) manages this is by combining synth sounds, organic strings, warm bass, and a mix of electric and acoustic drums into one project. The record’s heavy synth-leanings had to do with Jacobs’ diagnosis of thyroid cancer and Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, which lead to her use of synths, since they were easier on her body to play and could produce a multitude of sounds with less physical strain. Jacobs wrote most of the project while in recovery from surgery, then brought it to her band to build and layer upon, with Daniel Siles on drums, Maciej Lewandowski on bass, Roan Ma on violin, Laura Wolf Schatz on cello, and Zubin Hensler on trumpet and piano.
Although not the centerpiece of the album, Jacobs uses her experience as inspiration. The fourth track, “No Dancing Allowed,” illustrates the frustration and powerlessness when your body can’t do what you want it to. Jacobs doesn’t sound overcome with bitterness; instead, she sounds tongue-in-cheek, light, and collected with her clear, soaring voice backed by dancey drum beats and dainty string-plucks. What betrays her coolness is the brief, thumping beat behind the words: “Pain is an island with a cabaret law”; it acts like a piercing strobe light, or the persistent, personal whine of pain.
Although synth is Jacobs’ instrument of choice for the album, guitar is still sprinkled throughout, especially on “Warm Guts” and “Solitaire.” The former is a song that I assume must be killer live, with excellent shifting drums and a marriage of strings and electric guitar that is both stirring and tender. The latter gets into the head of someone in a relationship with a selfish partner, and as Jacobs’ voice rises in frustration, the drums pick up to meet her anguish with a steady beat and eventual crash of cymbals.
Jacobs’ voice bends and builds, reaching sky-high falsettos, breathy hiccups, and low howls; she manages to sound ethereal and princess-like, yet commanding and strong all in one breath. Perhaps this is best shown in the last track, “Chosen Ones,” a song about the follies and effects of criticism-heavy parenting. Toward the middle Jacobs sings: “What’s in their heart and mind?”; in the repetition of this line she allows her voice to get a little deeper, thicker, and guttural, countering the dainty high notes spread through the rest of the album. It’s a celebratory moment earned by an experienced musician and talented vocalist.
The album is full of highlights, whether it be “Stephen,” a track that blends dark and light sounds, and in another life would be a lonesome country tune (“It’s lonely loving Stephen”); or “Sway,” a warm, wistful song that mixes electric and acoustic drums, bass, trumpet, and dozens of intricate sounds, like the clock of a wood block or set of keys jangling. It best exhibits the playfulness of the record, and how seamlessly the band can blend old and new sounds together.
My favorite song has to be the opening track “Stranger Love,” that begins with Jacobs’ airy, weaving voice and ascending/descending synths. The song foreshadows what’s to come on the record: endless builds and surprises with catchy, danceable moments scattered within darker subjects. You never quite know where it’s going to go, so when the snare kicks in at the midway mark, you decide to stop guessing and just sit back and enjoy it. Thelma creates divergent soundscapes that rub up against each other, fuse together, and sound whole.