Guilty pleasure? Absolutely not! I have been a sucker for Katie Melua for quite some time – and of course I was a bit excited with the anticipation of the release of her fourth album, “The House” (24 May 2010 in the UK, 3 August 2010 in the USA). From her nascent days delving into emotive acoustic pop, that was heavily jazz and blues affected, she spent these and the next few years working with Mike Batt, proving that pop (in the classical sense) is far from gone. Performing her own original songs, Batt originals, and quite a few covers, including The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” Melua developed a strong reputation as a chanteuse, with one of this generation’s most expressive voices. Things became very interesting, though, when word spread that this time around she was not working with Batt, but instead with William Orbit. What had the potential of being the disastrous meeting of two worlds melds into an ambient but folksy/bluesy collection of music that subtly lulls away the time.
If you are expecting some radical departure in sound because William Orbit is involved, you will be sadly disappointed. Katie Melua has the reigns in her hands and obviously has determined the direction of this album; Orbit adds an ambience that has never existed on a Melua album before, while allowing her to delve into a few experiments in style, both musically and in production. He is one of those masters of details, with the ability to create a wall of sound that is either viscerally perfect or, conversely, abstract for the song (like in “God On The Drums, Devil On The Bass,” ironically co-written by Mike Batt). One thing, though, is completely constant in her music: there is this undercurrent of despondency that twists about just about everywhere. This is even reflected in her choice of cover music, this time around Bill Monroe’s “The One I Love Is Gone”: “I don’t know… I don’t know where I’ll go or what I’ll do. It makes no difference what I’d do without you.”
“I’d love to kill you with a kiss; I’d like to strike you down with bliss,” are the opening words of the album (“I’d Love To Kill You”). Very odd to kill with happiness, but before the end Melua sings, “ I love to watch you in your sleep ‘cause you don’t have power over me, and when you’re awake I’m undone, under your spell, in hell.” And there is that despondency rearing its ugly head in this acoustic, string-laden ballet. Followed by the lead single, “The Flood,” which is anything but the obvious single; slowly building, at first the song opens more as an elegy than a pop song, it breaks into a catchy, acoustic guitar pop song: “Broken people get recycled, and I hope that I will… Blame? No one is to blame, as natural as the rain that falls; here comes the flood again.” Then “A Happy Place” waltzes in, which instantly reminded me of the “Wild!” days of Erasure (I know the oddest comparison for Melua, but Orbit did remix one of their b-sides for a single off the album and was very prolific in this time period of British music, late 80s / early 90s). With that faux-bass line, the third track is the evidence that Melua is growing as an artist and willing to stretch her repertoire.
And from this point on, you are really in for an adventure: whether it is the playfully bluesy “A Moment of Madness” or the string-laden and poignant “No Fear of Heights,” Melua strings one song after the other that capture your attention and are musically, viscerally, and lyrically fodder for the imagination. Though the post-punkishly melodic “Twisted” would have been a perfect end for the album, Melua ends the album with the titular track, “The House.” This is the kind of song where Melua is at her best – regardless of the music arrangements or the sound effects, it is her voice that carries the song in every sense. The song is lyrically savvy (“In the privacy of my own room, where flowers in the wallpaper bloom…”) and full of the beautiful ambivalence and despondency that she is able to convey without gloom or doom.
The best way to describe Katie Melua’s “The House” is that it tackles all of those bleak moments of life, expected or unexpected, but put into a perspective that one can grow from. There is no wallowing, just a sense of familiarity with these themes, because we have all lived through them. Melua may not be the first to capitalize on these mundane moments of life, but she is one of the few who breathes beautiful and positive energy into them… so to end this simply, here are a few adjectives to keep in mind: introspective, poetic, sophisticated, universal, and irresistible.
1. I’d Love To Kill You
2. The Flood
3. A Happy Place
4. A Moment Of Madness
5. Red Ballons
6. Tiny Alien
7. No Fear Of Heights
8. The One I Love Is Gone
9. Plague Of Love
10. God On The Drums, Devil On The Bass
12. The House
Keep up with Katie Melua at her homepage, MySpace, and Facebook.
Here is her videos for “The Flood” and “A Happy Place’ from the DramaticoMusic YouTube Channel.