Saturday, October 13, 2018

Review of Melanie's "Melanie"

I just posted this review on the Sputnik Music site a few minutes ago.

Review Summary: "They say, 'Get out and sell them'/But selling's not my aim/I'm gonna sing the life I'm living/And try to ease the pain" -- from "Tuning My Guitar" by Melanie

Melanie Safka, aka Melanie, holds a special place in the history of folk music in the U.S. Starting out as beautiful teen from Astoria, NY, she was one of only two solo female folk singers (along with Joan Baez) to play at the Woodstock festival of 1969, where she first broke into the national consciousness. She played on the festival's opening night, as a replacement for The Incredible String Band, who refused to go on in the rain. As she performed, the audience lit up candles, creating an intimate and iconic moment that she later commemorated by writing the hit single "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)". 

Melanie (released in the UK as Affectionately Melanie) was Safka's second album. It was the first one to chart at all, albeit at #196. It contained her first single, "Beautiful People", which became something of an anthem for flower children everywhere. And for an album released in 1969, it still sounds pretty good in 2018.

This LP contains a nice representative sample of Safka's early work. On it, she demonstrates her ability to be both silly and serious. She also flits through a variety of styles, including folk, pop, blues, and even a little bit of country. There's a lot of quietly picked acoustic guitar, but also a surprising amount of string accompaniment. And Melanie also serves as a nice showcase for Safka's songwriting talents, and for her voice.

On the songwriting side, Melanie proves herself here to be less stridently political than many of her contemporaries, such as Baez and Buffy St. Marie. A lot of the tracks are tales of loneliness and alienation, although the pain is often hidden behind a mask of humor. Other songs contrast the joy of making music with the harsh reality of trying to make a living in the music industry, surrounded by people who only care about making money off of you. The closest thing here to a truly political song is "Beautiful People", a likable but painfully naive hippy-flavored track. Here, the artist (who was only seventeen at the time she wrote it) posits the idea that everyone is beautiful, and maybe if we all wore buttons that said "Beautiful People", we wouldn't feel so alone. Yeah, it's a little cringeworthy. However, it's sincere enough, the writer was really young, and most of her other songs show a much more sophisticated understanding of the world and human relationships, so I'm willing to just give her this one. (And maybe even enjoy it a little myself, if no one else is looking.)

As for her vocals, the 1969 version of Melanie was a singer whose vox belied her Gidget-like appearance. In a world where many of the most popular female folk artists sported exquisite high ranges that made constant use of vibrato (think Baez, Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins), Melanie's voice was husky and rather throaty. In fact, the closest comparison I can find to her would be Glynis Johns, the mother in the 1968 Mary Poppins film, who also recorded the original version of Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns".

Later in her career, Melanie Safka would become better known as a pop artist, with singles such as the #1 hit "Brand New Key". But Melanie provides an excellent glimpse into her beginnings as a '60s folk heroine.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars