As a reader of British music/recording magazines, I'd encountered the name "Katie Melua" long before I ever heard her music. She is not well known in the States. In Europe and the United Kingdom, though, Melua is big.
Born in 1984, Ketevan "Katie" Melua (pronounced "MEL-you-a") moved to the UK as an eight year old from her native Georgia. She released her first album in 2003 at the age of 19. Three years later, she was Britain's best-selling female singer and the highest-selling European female artist in all of Europe.
I had to hear her music.
The House is Melua's fourth studio album. Produced by William Orbit, the album signaled a change of style for her. Nevertheless, it managed to do what all of her other albums, before and since, have done: showcase Melua's lyrical songwriting, intriguing subject matter, and intimate, crystal-pure vocals.
Her style is difficult for me to categorize. Technically, this is pop. But it has nothing in common with what is typically associated with that word these days: wall-to-wall production, an emphasis on beats, processed vocals, banal lyrics. This is pop for intelligent people, weaving in elements of jazz and cabaret to create a wide musical landscape that never threatens to pull focus from Melua's voice. That's important, because that voice is delivering some great, thoughtful lyrics.
It is clear from the very first song that this album is going to be intriguing: "I'd love to kill you with a kiss / I’d like to strike you down with bliss / I’d like to tie you up in knots / Until your heart stops.” All sweetly sung over a lightly picked acoustic guitar.
For me, though, it is the second track, "The Flood," that highlights the quality of Melua's singing, songwriting, and inventive approach to arrangements.
"The Flood" may refer to life's events that threaten to overwhelm and drown us (or, alternatively, it could refer to the end of life altogether; like many of the songs on The House, there are multiple possible meanings on offer). Melua challenges us to take a closer look at the things in which we put our hope: "I am not afraid of changing. / I'm certain nothing's certain. / What we own becomes our prison. / My possessions will be gone / Back to where they came from."
And then, in my favorite line: "See the rock that you hold on to / Is it gonna save you / When the earth begins to crumble? / Why d'you feel you have to hold on? / Imagine if you let go."
The promise and possibility of that sung-spoken "let go" takes over as the tempo increases—meaningful tempo changes occur in several songs here—and Melua urges listeners: "Don't trust your eyes, it's easy to believe them / Know in your heart that you can leave your prison."
Just as she can offer positive encouragement here, she can just as easily shift into the sexy tease of "A Moment of Madness," the blues of "The One I Love Is Gone," and the aching beauty of "Red Balloons": "The sky is full of red balloons / Red balloons are full of broken hearts / Broken hearts are floating by a chance / Will they burst or drift into arms? / Will they burst or drift into arms?"
The word I keep coming back to when thinking about Melua's vocal approach is intimate. Although she does occasionally cut loose with power—for example, in "The Flood," "God on the Drums, Devil on the Bass," "Plague of Love"—more often it feels as if her lips are within inches of the listener's ear. (Which makes a song like "I'd Love to Kill You" all the more unsettling.) Equally notable, though, is Melua's deft senses of pitch and performance. In the cabaret-colored swing of "A Moment of Madness," her pitch is pure, hitting notes with a confidence and clarity that few other contemporary, popular singers—if any—possess. That confidence is infectious; it is easy to trust her, to go along on this journey because she is so much in control even while being so utterly surprising. (Case in point: "Tiny Alien," which I'm still not 100% sure I've figured out, after dozens of listens.)
If The House is unknown to you, I encourage you to visit. Open the door and listen to "The Flood" and "A Happy Place," my two strong favorites. If those songs don't grab you, feel free to move on. But if they do, know that it's going to be a rewarding visit.
Katie Melua is a genuine artist.
Katie Melua on Wikipedia
A BBC interview with Melua on the making of the album.