Sara Thomsen: Somewhere to Begin

Paul Whyte

Sara Thomsen’s latest album, “Somewhere to Begin,” is a collection of songs that often delves into themes of political, social and environmental issues through lyrical imagery and storytelling. Despite some of the topics that the album has, Thomsen’s style is undeniably laid back folk music. Her smooth and warm voice makes it easy to forget that she’s singing about war, starving children and degradation of the environment at times. The album isn’t all about darker issues that the world faces, there is a hopeful outlook that underlies the struggles of facing the problems throughout.  
While some forms of music such as punk that take on these issues can be pretty angry, Thomsen makes it clear from the start that being angry isn’t her aim with this music. The first track, “Somewhere to Begin,” sets the premise of her approach, “The search for something worth believing in/If changes are to come/there are things that must be done/And a song is somewhere to begin.” The chorus switches from “a song,” to “a dream” and “love” as “somewhere to begin.”
What I enjoyed with the physical copy of this album is the liner notes, graphics and lyrics that are included.  They play a strong part in the interactive listening experience of the album and the songs are more meaningful with the back stories. The second track, “The Ballad of Molly Ivins,” is about the noteworthy author and newspaper columnist who was outspoken and not afraid to stir up some awareness, “She’d say go into your kitchen, grab a pot, grab a pan/And get out on the street and start ‘raise a ruckus’ band.” The liner notes feature a painting of Ivins by Sarah Thompson (not to be confused with Thomsen) and there is a graphic of a frying pan and a wooden spoon. A clever addition to the percussion is the sound of something resembling a frying pan that is being tapped on in the mix. The song was written at the recommendation of a mother who lost her son, a U.S. soldier in Iraq, for an event that recognized Ivins’ work.
The next track was also written on the recommendation of an advocate against mining in the Boundary Waters. The song, “Precious Water,” highlights the main arguments against sulfide mining in that area, “We don’t want your sulfide mine/Twenty years here, then you leave it behind.” In the liner notes Thomsen states, “My hope is that as a species, we might evolve to a place where our creation and consumption of ‘stuff’ is in balance with sustaining the water, the air, the earth.” While this is a fine thing to hope for, it’s fair to say that the opposite is happening.
As far a musicianship on the album, it’s fairly soft and easy going. Even the songs with some groove in them are pretty subtle and relaxed. The track, “Between the Clotheslines,” is a carefree acoustic waltz held down by softly plucked acoustic guitar and is highlighted by some nice slide dobro work by Lance Rhicard. Instruments like the bass played by John Thorene are held back and suits the style of music. Gene Koshinski is credited for the percussion. Again, this song was written for an environmental awareness event celebrating clotheslines and rejecting laws banning Americans from hanging their clothes out to dry.
The song, “The Good News,” starts out like it might be a Christian song of sorts. “Oh, the gospel, the good news/Walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes/Somebody hungry/get them some food on their plate/Pray for those who put you down/love the ones you hate.” This is going to be a cheerful and peaceful song, right? No, it was written regarding a 2008 incident in Knoxville, TN where a man walked into a Sunday church service with a guitar case which contained a gun and he took it out and started shooting. Two died and seven were wounded. The man’s hatred of liberals, gays and blacks is what motivated him to unload on innocent people. While I do prefer my political music more on the angry side, Thomsen’s approach of noting how the guitar case symbolized something peaceful yet concealed something deadly which would be wielded out of hate has some impact. The intertwining of a Christian message with some fairly dark storytelling makes for a unique song to say the least.
There are a couple of tracks on the album that credit women in Thomsen’s life. The track ,”Oh Grandmother,” has the definite feel of a traditional folk song. It was written in 2011, but if someone where to tell me it came from a century ago, I’d probably buy it. The track, “Renaissance Woman,” is perhaps the most pop sounding song on the album. It details the struggles and joys of a single mother taking on being a parent, then finding love again, being a housewife, a farm worker, all the while doing things like yoga and adjusting to modern life.
This album is really worked into actual events and the two tracks “Address” and “Halabja” really stand out. The track, “Address,” is the only track to not feature Thomsen, rather it is a recording of Kurdish Poet, Hamid Qaladzaye, detailing a chemical bombing that happened on March 16, 1988 in his own Kurdish language over the piano work of Ryan Frane. Thomsen wrote a song called, “Halabja,” based on the poem and it provides poetic imagery of a chemical attack, “All is stone silent for miles/The wind creeps by the mother and child/Curls close to the families in piles/And the wind dies/it was the day/The wind died, blew no more/Even the wind, blew no more/Even the wind, even the wind died at your door,” goes the final verse of the song. Instrumentally the violin played by Erin Aldridge, the piano and the percussion provides a somber back drop to the scene.
Aside from this, I’d say the most approachable and least provocative song on the album is “The Heartbeat Drum.” It’s a delightful tune with a fun sway that comes from the well done piano parts to the light and playful percussion. It’s “a song for all children, everywhere” according to the liner notes. The song achieves what it is meant to be, which is fun and light hearted.
There’s not much to complain about as far as the recording of this album. It was recorded by Eric Swanson at Sacred Heart and it sounds great. The packaging and interior album layout is some of the best I’ve seen in awhile and I’m glad someone made that call to have it like that. If this album did not have the liner notes, it’d be a lot harder to approach and understand. The cover art was done by Ed Epstein and it was sketched during a live performance, so that’s just awesome.
Overall, “Somewhere to Begin” is a deep and well written album. Thomsen certainly seems to care a lot about a variety of issues that she has taken the time to either meet the people affected personally or has done the research behind the songs. The musicianship is well done and Thomsen’s voice is beautiful. The one thing I have a hard part getting into is that besides, “Halabja,” I didn’t really feel a lot from the album. The liner notes helped me gain an appreciation of what was happening in it, but I didn’t feel a gut reaction from the topics when I feel like I should have. This is kind of sad because Thomsen does make a lot of statements and perhaps it’s her overall positivity about the situation that ends up undercutting the overall message. A sense of feeling can be achieved without going into bitter, sarcastic and bold punk rock like NOFX or Dead Kennedy’s. When I think about Thomsen’s approach, I think it might actually be too literal while being a little too polite. I think a good example of a song that basically notes how the world is going to hell while promoting a sense of love is the song by Bright Eyes, “At the Bottom of Everything.” What Thomsen did on this album is excellent songwriting and storytelling but I either want to feel happy, I want to have tears running down my face or I want to feel pissed off. I just mostly learned about a few things from this album and I won’t say that’s a bad thing.