Shelley Thomas Channels an Entire Bulgarian Vocal Choir on Her Stunning New Solo Album
Shelley Thomas‘ debut solo album, Joy – streaming at her music page– is as exhilarating to listen to as it is a towering display of vocal prowess. Thomas is not only one of New York’s great voices; she’s one of the world’s most highly sought-after interpreters of Middle Eastern and Balkan music. What’s most impressive about this album is how she multitracks her voice, essentially becoming a one-woman Bulgarian vocal choir, a self-contained Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares or Black Sea Hotel (of which she is a member). As she explains in the album’s liner notes, Bulgarian music is “a vast and exciting repertoire of wildly diverse regional styles, dialects and ornaments, rich in history, storytelling and feeling.” That’s an understatement. Thomas has such vast range, formidable technique and minutely nuanced command of microtones that she can do it all. The result is rapture that sometimes borders on terror. Olivier Messiaen understood that; so does Thomas.
Beyond the otherworldly, microtonal beauty of the arrangements, sometimes what’s most striking about these seventeen songs is their surrealism. Other times it’s the subtext, as in the album’s distantly plaintive, solo vocal opening track, where a girl goes out into the woods, ostensibly to pick flowers. But what she’s really up to is searching for her missing brother, a freedom figther against the local tyrant, or Ottoman invaders.
Most of the other tracks are packed with the close harmonies typically associated with the Bulgarian vocal tradition. Thomas juxtaposes a hypnotically enveloping field holler of sorts with a bride-price diptych full of the echo effects typically associated with mountain music. She channels the wistfulness of a girl beseeching her mother not to marry her off before she’s been able to enjoy a bit more of her carefree childhood, and the bounciness of a tune that belies its macabre lyric about a construction worker who falls victim to a murderous prank. Thomas delivers the album’s celebratory title track as a brisk but stately pavane of sorts.
The rest of the album is just as colorful. Brides are sought after again and again; grooms are rejected (usually because they’re too impoverished) and accepted once in awhile. An abusive boyfriend runs up against karmic payback; another hothead meets his match with a girl who wants to tie him up, yikes! Thomas’ lush, hushed reinvention of Mesechinko Ljo is simply exquisite, one part Arvo Part, one part African-American gospel. The next-to-last track is even more epic. Many of the remaining songs are very short, clocking in at barely two minutes; in each case, the emotion in Thomas’ vocals, sometimes tender, sometimes wounded, often uneasy, transcends linguistic limitations. You don’t need to speak Bulgarian to be entranced by this music: it’s one of the half-dozen best albums of 2016. Thomas’ fascinating liner notes include both the original Bulgarian lyrics and English translations as well as historical and musicological background.