An album with promise albeit vocally uneven – marred by a final lapse of taste.
Melanie Curran, we are told, is a songwriter, ethnographer and filmmaker whose work focuses on the evolution of traditional music in the digital age. Her songwriting highlights American traditional music, from classic country, to rock and roll, to Irish-tinged old-time ballads. She has been the recipient of a Fulbright award in order to study Bretagne’s traditional music and dance cultures. A woman of many parts and talents.
The current album, ‘San Benedito Beach’, is released this month, October 2021; Curran’s first full-length offering was in 2016 – ‘Hot Sauce in Kitsap County’. Currently, she is based in New York City, originally being from an island off the state of Washington. Supporting Curran in this venture are Robbie Morshead on drums and backing vocals and Alex Fermanis on pedal steel, organ, bass and lead guitar. Curran shows her versatility on banjo, violin, guitar and lead guitar on two tracks. Just to be clear – the whole production was recorded on the unceded and traditional territory of the Suquamish people.
The album opens quite promisingly with, ‘Say That You Will’, and carries a vocal that suits the Curran voice as well as any – it also contains some imaginative guitar. It’s apparent that she is a good lyricist from the parts that are decipherable- and she does enunciate quite well compared to some. However given the absence of any transcribed lyrics, it’s not possible to be categoric in that judgment.
Equally satisfying, ‘Fish Monger Blues’ – replete with banjo and later some violin is one of several tracks, along with such as, ‘Cracklin’ Pool Balls’, (with some discrete pedal steel) that could be described as the ‘country’ side of the artists work.
The third track, ‘Walkin the Line’, is marred by a vocal that at times veers close to harshness and demonstrates a voice which, whenever pushed in any way, becomes nasal and rather grating, sounding a little like Lucinda Williams who also has a tendency to push too far past the boundaries of what is clearly a magnificent voice. ‘Rough 2 Ride’, taken at a more relaxed pace, has a very clear feel of Williams about it and again demonstrates that Curran’s vocals are at their best when she reins things in.
Although the fifth number, ‘Lifelist’ is clearly a spoof, and quite a funny one, meriting its punk style delivery, it actually becomes quite difficult to listen to. The song itself is a nice idea and there are clever lines in there (again evidence of a facility with words) but it is not easy on the ear. There is a question to be asked as to whether there might have been a way that a bit more warmth could have been added to the recording of the vocals. Many great artists have transcended the limitations of their abilities – be it musical, vocal, or lyrical and maybe Curran might reconsider what delivery best suits her voice?
The title track, ‘San Benedito Beach’, is a relaxed hand-clapping piece influenced by early rock and roll all of which brings us eventually to the final track, ‘The Last Corona’, which unfortunately features the least attractive vocal on the whole album. It appears to be a humorous song about the fate of the people trapped on the ‘Diamond Princess’ cruise ship because of Covid precautions. What the intention might be is an open question. Up to a point, there is merit in the idea that we can make sense of awful situations by way of laughter. In the early days, we all heard the cracks about cigars and soft drinks being the root cause of Covid infection. However, it’s a fine line as to when it is or isn’t appropriate and sometimes it never is – there are no jokes about Thomas Hamilton as far as I know. As of today, there have been close to 750,000 deaths in America and the initial response made the administration a laughing stock. There’s a good subject for a song – but it’s far from clear that it’s this one.
Unless there is a wholesale misunderstanding on the part of the reviewer, then misjudgment by the artist is the only conclusion – which is puzzling because everything found on her website would suggest that Curran is a thoughtful person and sensitive to the issues of the day. It may be that this track was recorded some time ago (November 2020) though it was not exactly in the early stages of the pandemic – however, there is no reason to release it now given our more complete understanding of the parlous situation we are in.
Were it not for this lapse what we might have is a collection of songs in a variety of styles with some apparently interesting writing and a voice that whilst powerful demonstrates that less is more. On that basis, it’s a real mixed bag.