Review: Carly Thomas, “Behind The Ficus”

Carly Thomas - Behind the Ficus

It does not matter who you are, or where you are in your musical career, you only have once chance to make a favorable first impression to a new listener.  Not that you are likely to make it or break it with one chance alone (because we have all given second chances at some point in our lives – several of the bands I learned to enjoy didn’t necessarily win me over with their first shot).  But for a music junkie and blogger like me, if I’m hitting the skip button less than ten seconds in, chances are you’ve lost me; I’ve already moved on.  In my defense, there are not enough hours in the day to fully immerse myself in every single or album submission that drops into our inbox, so as a friendly PSA, that strong first impression is a must.

I fondly recall the summer of 2017 when emerging indie folk-rocker Carly Thomas appeared on the bill at a popular annual festival in London, ON.  Considered a local girl at that particular time, I would later learn of her somewhat nomadic lifestyle – born in Thailand, and raised in Argentina, France, and North America – even now, this versatile artist is splitting her residential status between Ontario and San Francisco, CA.  But no matter how well travelled Carly happened to be, it was an intimate songwriter circle in the early afternoon that brought her music to my ears; and sharing a stage with the likes of Dana Sipos and Suzie Ungerleider (Oh Susanna), was no average music ensemble on this particular day.  Carly more than held her own, thus making it easy to accept an open invitation to return for her debut main stage show complete with full band later that evening.  And after a highly energetic set, she not only checked all of the boxes on the ‘first impressions’ scorecard, but cemented her status as a headline caliber artist in her own right too.

But as fast as Carly Thomas earned our attention, she quickly disappeared from the music radar for a while, at least until returning just a couple of months ago with an absolute bang!  Announcing the upcoming release of her third full-length studio album, “Behind The Ficus,” Carly assertively stepped up to the plate, took a swing, and blasted a home run out of the park with the lead single, “Stay With Me.”  I recall first hearing this song during a routine workday, and stopped absolutely dead in my tracks, scrambling to learn who was responsible for this truly inspirational sensory delight.  “And I don’t wanna be rude, lying here covered in blue / Under a sky full of stars I’m lying in your arms / Wondering which one of us is the fool.

Rooted in her deepest psyche, and described by the artist as ‘what vulnerability looks like in relationships,’ this proved to be a delicate, minimalist Americana ballad that tears away at the heart.  “Writing Stay With Me was a cathartic way of unfolding some tucked away emotions,” Carly offers. “It’s about fighting those internal walls we build up along the way.  There’s a huge vulnerability in truly showing who you are to someone over and over, and there’s a weight that comes with it that can be exhausting.”  “And I don’t wanna confuse you / And I don’t wanna lose you tonight / Stay by my side if you don’t mind then I don’t mind.

Featuring eleven new compositions, “Behind The Ficus” paints many pictures of Carly’s nomadic lifestyle, offering imagery of Parisian train stations, Toronto rooftops, coastal vistas, and gritty American highways, which combine to bring a varied, yet cohesive feel to the music.  It is, in short, a candid and personal glimpse of an artist in bloom, navigating through irrational self-doubt and the messiness of heartache, leaving the listener with a beautifully framed map of life’s journey through the things that make us human – love, loss, grief and growth.  But if you expect to find another ten songs that follow the formula behind “Stay With Me,” prepare to be wrong, because, as I alluded to earlier, Carly’s incredible versatility shall exceed your expectations.  From radio-friendly pop, to dark indie-rock and beyond, Carly transitions between genres with formidable ease, yet simultaneously keeps the album narrative on track with perfect precision and continuity.

Those indie-rock roots can certainly be found in tracks such as “September,” which straddles a fine line between rock and Americana, and “Carolina,” itself another subsequent single shared before the album launch.  “I want you to show me what I know you can’t explain / Walk with me though the ocean breeze, stand with me on the edge / On the border of a holy moment and I can’t look away / I watch this burn like a wildfire on a torrid California day.”  With a powerful start, Carly very quickly flexes her vocal muscles, her voice dominates the speaker, drawing you into her world, like an old friend or confidant.  “In my mind I’m gone to Carolina was a line in my head when I was looking for a name for this song.  I’ve never been to Carolina even though most of my music is based on places I’ve travelled,” she offers. “Carolina is an almost moment. A fleeting glimpse.  This is a special snapshot of a wanting to be there, but never meant to be.”  “Carolina, can you stay? / I’ve been afraid to dive in / And I don’t want to live that way / I’ve been hiding out for days / If you don’t break this silence at least let me wash away.” 

I took an immediate liking to a pair of radio-friendly tracks that not only move Carly’s music towards the mainstream, but also tie in some truly nostalgic sounds and influences that transported this particular listener back to the days of 80s power pop-rock.  “Can I Be The Fire” would make for a convincing 80s action movie soundtrack during one of those pivotal moments where the main character is seemingly down and out: “Show me a light, aside from the white / Of these walls I need this / Give me something else, ring all the bells / Cast your ancient spells / Can you feel this / Hear me out.”  Offering cues from the past, the track shifts gears as it progresses, before returning to decades past with the perfect placement of a wailing AOR guitar solo. 

Depending on your tastes for 80s synth rock, “Front Row” can easily whisk you back away to the era of big hair and snow-washed denim.  “Dreaming of the west coast / Even L.A. feels like home / I thought I saw you in the cool glow / Time is fleeting / I feel you leaving / See you in the crowd / Music is loud / I need you right now / I’ll be waiting in the front row / I know you’ll come around.”  The sound is definitely post-new romantic, where a soft melodic beat is mated to moody rock riffs, a place where Pat Benatar fans will rejoice in these big pop-rock sounds that rose to prominence across most of the western hemisphere back in the day.  “Bringing these songs into the light was like digging through the clutter that builds up and trying to find myself again,” Carly shares.  “Only this was taking up space in my heart and soul, it feels like a fresh start.  I also wanted to find humour in the process, because like music, laughter has the incredible healing power.”

While “Stay With Me” remains my favored track here, there are a pair of tunes in particular that really caught my attention.  How could I not fall head over heels in love with “Virginia Is For Lovers (The River),” given our geographical proximity to the State?  Being a little over an hour’s drive from our PA home, this song conjures images of those four words adorning the ‘Welcome to Virginia” highway signs, and on the foot of many Virginia motor vehicle license plates.  And then we have “Where’d You Go,” complete with ringing piano keys that completely grab my attention (I’m a sucker for piano ballads, what can I say?).  I love the pace of this track and the instrumentation choices. I love how Carly’s vocals transcend between powerful and emotive, to soft-spoken and vulnerable: “There isn’t time to wonder why / Or analyze / Do you suppose / We’ll never know / Finding homes in catacombs / Dig through the bones / Something told you / Leave it alone.”  This deliberate mellowness allows us all time to slow things down, to reflect, to simply be in the moment, at least until the arrival of an overpowering guitar solo that fills the void perfectly and snaps us from our momentary daze.  This truly would be an essential track to experience live, with the full band in tow, a perfect opportunity for Carly to make yet another convincing first impression on a new audience.

“Behind The Ficus” is so much more than just an album; it is a carefully crafted collection of new songs that represent a lyrical evolution for this artist.  While Carly has always rightfully been recognized as an evocative and insightful lyricist, these eleven songs offer both an intense vulnerability and immediate resonance.  Better still, they announce the arrival of an evolved and seasoned artist who has dug deep to find those tales of love, loss, grief, and growth, and has come to terms with what she wants to say.  Highly recommended listening.

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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