Musical acts descending from Oxford include Supergrass, Ride, Radiohead, Foals, and Glass Animals, among others. While that pedigree might not be as impressive as the local history of science or literature, it nevertheless suggests an innovative and diverse musical culture. From college concerts to pub gigs (Radiohead once used to play at the Jericho Tavern), there is a great genre variety of live performances. House and reggae can be heard at The Cellar, tribute acts and indie darlings, at the 02 Academy, and you never quite know what you are in for at an open mic.
Some two years ago, at Catweazle, I came across Laura Theis. She was playing the Q-chord and performing a couple of songs: a cover of Scout Niblett’s ‘Gun’ and a piece of her own, ‘The Ocean is Nobody’s Bitch’. It was the combination of a very melodic, soft voice and clever biting lyrics that made her performance stand out. (I might have repeated some of the lines to myself until I was sure I remembered them well enough to google later. Such things happen when you hear an ex-mermaid say, ‘I put up with endless walking / when all I want to do is swim / and no one seems to understand / this predicament I’m in.’)
In October 2016 Laura Theis released her debut album, Badass Snow White, on Bandcamp. Labelled as alternative — but also punk, folk, and antifolk — the album is a mix of sound with constantly playful lyrics. There are touches of traditional rock and indie-pop to it, but ‘punk’ seems to be a misattribution. Yes, Badass Snow White is rebellious in spirit, but the album lacks the raw aggression of the genre, and the sound is always too polished to pretend the record is coming out of a garage.
While Badass Snow White is not a concept album, its songs are united by more that just the time they happened to come out. The tracks are uniformly feminist and empowering, which, when coupled with the variety of sound, creates a very interesting record. Theis’s musical influences seem to be in the range from Joan Jett to Kimya Dawson and Lisa Hannigan. ‘Angel vs Predator’, number five on the album, brings to mind ‘I Love Rock’n’Roll’, with its self-assured heroine that is not too shy to initiate a carnal relationship. ‘Unserenaded’ sees its protagonist transition from being an object to being the artist. It also echoes ‘Anyone Else But You’ by the Moldy Peaches, familiar from Juno.
The title song, ‘Badass Snow White’, is a retelling of the well-known story but from the point of view of a girl who refuses to take anything lying down. Her act of defiance is eating apple pie, which is an obvious reference to the fairy-tale, but also a link to the Old Testament and, in that way, a refusal to be a victim of one’s circumstances.
Subversion of familiar narratives, especially the ones which have been disneyfied, is common for the album. ‘When Wendy Grew Up’ is a depiction of a break-up between a woman (Wendy Darling) and a selfish man-child (Peter Pan) who refuses to take responsibility. The lyrics in Laura Theis’s songs are intelligent enough to allow a literal reading, a metaphor for modern life, and an amalgam of the two. The lines ‘Cause he won’t stand for / what he doesn’t believe in / and not growing up / has been his biggest achievement’ will resonate with a few listeners.
Badass Snow White is a record that I expect to enjoy more with every subsequent listen. Its attraction is not in novelty or trendy sound; it is in the words and the music. Changing from the happy howling of ‘Sunshine Werewolf’ to the tranquil and slow tune of ‘To Live by a River’, the album offers multiple versions of identity. There is the femme fatale from ‘Defy Cupid’, the lovely crazy girl from ‘A Practical Guide to Abducting an Alien’, and the selkie from ‘The Ocean Is Nobody’s Bitch’. What these characters have in common is agency and power. Their ideas might be unusual, but who are you to tell them what to do? As in ‘Spider in the Music Room’, fear is replaced with wonder.
Although there is no direct transition from a song to a song, the album certainly ends with a resolution, with saying goodbye and moving on. ‘Asenweg 16’, second to last track, gives the audience the permission to leave their past behind. With a bit of Beach House vibes, the song says that it is okay to move on and it is beautiful to move on. Final ‘Edinburrah’ is a postcard you get from a friend who went away to travel. There such a quiet security to her songs that I want to come up to Theis and ask when the boat is sailing and whether I can join that worldwide lifelong adventure.
Discography: Laura Theis, Badass Snow White. United Kingdom. Released on Bandcamp from October 28th, 2016. (Review on AllMusic forthcoming)
Current album: Laura Theis, Badass Snow White
Current book: Margaret Atwood, Handmaid’s Tale
Current TV series: Gravity Falls, Series 2 (2014–2016)