It’s too good of an opportunity to not get out on Sunday for the market and the show. But if you can’t make it, the album Deep Below Heaven is waiting on Bandcamp for you. I suggest you take advantage of it. I first became aware of Melaena last year through her Singles Project, in which she released a new song each month for all of 2013. Each was paired with a new piece of artwork by a friend. The songs were diverse and enjoyable. I’m excited to now have a more cohesive work that is equally good.
Likely the first thing you’ll notice when listening is Melaena’s voice. It has shades of others but ultimately feels wholly her own and unique. What floors me most is how she deploys it dynamically to great effect. She sounds as compelling at a near whisper as she does cutting loose with a full-bodied delivery. The voice always seems to have soul and contain a multitude of emotions. It enlivens a wide array of characters and it feels like a part of the natural settings the songs frequently evoke, like something elemental. I have no idea when Melaena actually became a singer but to me it seems like her voice was made for this purpose.
The music of Deep Below Heaven is probably best described as country or folk. Maybe Americana, since it makes me think of different locations around the US that are generally not urban and even places I’ve been. It has that mythic frontier feeling, the romance of the west for its unrivaled beauty that has nothing to do with man, yet channeled into a more intimate scale. At times, there are touches of blues, and the song “Dreams” in particular wafts out of a jazz lounge. Acoustic guitars and banjos are prominent. The electric guitar playing is expressive but subdued. I like the horns on “Holy Night” and “Big Big Fire” and cello makes a memorable appearance on “Sharp White Teeth.” Some of the songs have a brisk uptempo approach, like “Neon Drag” and “Keep It.” All of them have a strong sense of craft and easily invite the listener to inhabit their rich soundscapes.
If you read down the Bandcamp page, you’ll see that the album’s title references a Sam Shepard short story. Melaena writes, “I like to think of the record as a book of short stories, myself and each of the characters struggling in our own universe but united in that struggle, deep below heaven, far from grace, reaching for something.” It’s a very powerful theme that rings throughout the record. Lyrics like “I feel like I’m wasting my days – Smile, you’re doing fine” on “Neon Drag” and “Make her laugh so she don’t cry” on “Holy Night” speak to the transcendence of simple gestures of support. I am moved by how often the challenges and joys go hand in hand, because we all find the same mixture each and every day. Many songs take on an element of travel and journey, both physically and metaphorically. “Home Town” will likely resonate for anyone who has come to New York City from anywhere else. “Keep It” has imagery of the road and leaving, and “Needles River” mentions “Some place better, some place far away.” At all times, you feel you are in the hands of a great writer of words and music, and I was constantly struck by how Melaena’s delivery seemed to be perfectly on point as needed for whatever she was telling.
It’s a lovely record. You should give it a listen and go see Melaena play the release show Sunday night. I leave you with the video for “Needles River.”