Album review: Sandi Thom: Merchants And Thieves

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TO DATE, Sandi Thom's career has been defined more often by her mistakes than her accomplishments. From the moment she first stepped into the public eye, the Banff-born singer/songwriter has been viewed with suspicion, even derision, and seems to have spent almost as much time defending herself from various criticisms as she has making music.

The overnight success of her debut single I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers In My Hair) in 2006 turned out to be a poisoned chalice. Her crime, it transpired, was not just writing a catchy but disposable ode to ye olde simpler times but submitting to very 21st-century PR tactics to take her music to a wider fanbase.

A series of concerts webcast from her basement flat in Tooting (capacity of ten, "including the band") eventually reached an estimated internet audience of 70,000. It was an irresistible story, and a worldwide webstar was born – with a little help from a PR company behind the scenes. Of course this was no organic success story – despite the web's apparent democratic dissemination of music, truly independent commercial success is still the exception rather than the rule. But after she was outed for her "stunt", Thom struggled and ultimately failed to overcome her reputation as a puppet of the PR machine.

Her debut album Smile…It Confuses People sailed to the top of the charts on the back of Punk Rocker's success but Thom was unable to sustain the momentum with her dismal second album The Pink & The Lily and she was dropped by her label Sony, to the relief to both parties, with Thom later complaining that she had been pressurised into changing lyrics and pursuing a pop agenda she would not have chosen for herself.

At least the Scottish Government was still interested in her. But following her downright embarrassing duet with Alex Salmond during last year's Homecoming celebrations and revelations of the expenses she received for playing Scottish Government-sponsored events, she was at pains to distance herself from a close affiliation with the SNP. One wonders what she thought singing with a politician might do for her credibility.

Thom is not the first artist to risk damaging her credibility for a chance of exposure but since she has been repeatedly rumbled there is always the danger that the public's good opinion, once lost, may be lost forever. So her latest volte-face may well be greeted with scepticism, as Thom tries to reposition herself as a British Bonnie Raitt.

Her rebirth as a bluesy belle on Merchants And Thieves would be bizarre if it did not sound so convincing. Thom may finally have found her niche in the commercial blues rock realm. Her burgeoning musical and personal relationship with young gun blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa should send her on her way, even if he rather dominates as special guest on her comeback single This Ol' World.

However, Thom has every reason to sing the blues for herself since the demise of her relationship with fianc and bandmate Jake Field last year. The material here is bittersweet, in that most of the songs were co-written with Field and feature a protagonist who is either leaving her man, already on the run, waiting for her man to come back or regretting that she let him slip away. Whether despite or because of the personal resonance, Thom really gets a chance to show her chops as a singer with a succession of impassioned vocals.

Lyrics, however, have never been Thom's strongest suit. Musically, she struts a good game on prowling blues rocker Maggie McCall but this updating of the outlaw blues is mired in clich. She starts getting to grips with the lexicon on dustbowl boogie Runaway Train, spurred on by some gospelly backing vocals.

There is diversity and dynamics in her new rootsy odyssey. Gold Dust is a shimmering, sultry lament for a lost love with some nice burnished blues guitar, while the lovely, loping country blues of The Sadness could have been beamed straight from a Nashville juke joint. The title track is patchouli-scented instrumental rhythm'n'blues, while the gorgeous two-part harmony a capella Ghost Town is a plaintive requiem for a love. Let It Stay carries traces of a southern soul vibe, though less might have been more as Thom overcooks the vocal a little.

She flirts with KT Tunstall-issue roots pop on Heart Of Stone but sounds never more trad than on Show No Concern which really gets to the nub of Sandi's blues: "well they took all of my money, they changed all of my songs," she notes wryly.

By closing track Belly Of The Blues, she has submitted to her destiny. The challenge will be to convince others that she was "born in the belly of the blues".

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