Some recordings make their mark by overcoming obstacles, external and internal. First, in order to be heard on its own terms, to establish its own identity. Low Country must transcend the expectations of forty-something listeners who recall Melanie, for better or worse, as an icon of 60s pop (are the 60s in or out this year?).
Next, it must justify the consciously dramatic production of the album, a sort of Phil Specter wall of sound for contemporary folk, rock, a dense symphony of acoustic and electric instrumentation and wailing multi-tracked choruses demanding equivalent intensity from the vocals, songs, and lyrics.
Low Country stands up to these challenges, and actually improves over the course of repeated listenings.
The leadoff track, "I'm Not In Love Anymore," sets a melancholy tone, it's slow first person dirge and excellent vehicle for Melanie's deep, rough voice --- a Poe-like unreliable narrator libretto adding a chillingly ominous edge. Just what is this song about and who is singing it? The keening chorus and slide electric guitar of "A Song for Robert Johnson" impress even before the lyrics come to the fore, and gain depth once you fall in with this elaboration of a blues legend.
There are a few quiet, pretty songs, such as "Be the Sky," but even that develops into an archetypal anchemic chorus, the insistence of Melanie's vocal enabling this simple tune to support considerable dramatic effect, much as with such Richard Thompson classics as "Dimming of the Day," "Prematurely Grey" (and absolutely blue) remains slow, sad, and musing, revealing a Piaf side to Melanie's voice, carefully modulated emotion and regret. But Low Country is mainly a belter's album.
My two favorite tracks, near the end of the recording, include "You Call Yourself a Writer," a dramatic acoustic twelve-string strum fading into a heartfelt if somewhat elliptical reminiscence of betrayal, I suppose, where Melanie's vocal self-accompaniment is particularly complex and joyous. (You probably think this song is about you.) The infectious anthemic wave crests with "Freedom Knows My Name," an upbeat affirmation of hope over regret which will haunt you relentlessly, and you will be grateful that it does.
It may seem gauche, or perhaps merely hopeful, thinking of Christmas music during summer in the desert Southwest, with many a double-digit temperature in sight, but many of the same qualities which enliven Low Country grace Antlers, the Melanie Christmas album. The basic electro-acoustic production is similar, suggesting perhaps Steelye Span or Fairport Convention, but many of these classic seasonal songs are, after all, English in origin. It also occurred to me that such simple, time-tested tunes as "Good King Wenceslas" play perfectly to the dramatic interpretative qualities of Melanie's gritty nuanced voice. And you get over 70 minutes of music!
Treat yourself to an early Christmas with Low Country and Antlers.