It isn’t hard to notice that Melissa McClelland is easy on the eyes. On the cover of Victoria Day, her fourth album and first on the Six Shooter imprint, her etched Grecian profile stands out against a dark background, a stuffed bird suspended from her chestnut locks. Elsewhere in the liner notes, she’s bathed in pink beneath an umbrella of that color (the CD itself is also pink), and lifts her chin with supermodel-esque acumen beneath a huge, fashionable floppy hat. Most every musical artist submits to promo glamour shots at some point, true. But rarely do these shots take on the appearance of a fashion spread for In Style magazine.
One cannot really criticize McClelland for looking good, but the surface tension between her graceful femininity and the grittier ambitions of her music is palpable. On her previous Independent Music Award-winning single, “Passenger 24”, the Chicago-born, Toronto-based singer/songwriter poured out stark snapshots of highway-side solitude over the harsh metallic plucking provided by husband Luke Doucet (a fellow Canuck purveyor of sandy-haired Great Lakes blues-pop). Her clear, pretty vocals aligned her more closely with other women of Americana (Lucinda Williams, Sarah Harmer, and especially Kathleen Edwards), but McClelland tended to brush aside the mournful lilt of her peers. She aims for something more audacious: Tom Waits in a skirt.
So when she sings “I got a mean dog / With a bone to pick” in “Glenrio”, you’re supposed to believe her. If she had pipes better adapted to growling than to cooing, I might be more inclined to do so. I have no doubt that McClelland and Doucet share a deep and abiding interest in the blues, but their kicks at the Delta can in “Glenrio” and the album-opening “A Girl Can Dream” come off like precocious posing. They do better on the smoky “God Loves Me”, though Doucet’s guitar insertions boast a warmth that is more processed than it is natural; they ought to be slow-cooked over a fire, but instead they were reheated in a microwave.
McClelland does find her feet on the two-part title track, particularly with the New Orleans swagger of “Victoria Day (May Flowers)”, a crabwalking celebration of Canada’s May long weekend, with its bank holiday vestigially honoring the late, stolid British Queen. The horns make their presence felt, shuffle-marching further through “I Blame You” and “When the Lights Went Off in Hogtown”. The latter references Toronto’s 2003 blackout, employing a derogatory nickname that the current crop of civic boosters would like to forget, but which carries an old-timey vibe that surely appeals to McClelland. She lays down her best torch-singer vocals here, weaving in Jazz Age imagery, name-checking various local landmarks, and nostalgically misremembering the city’s uptight Protestant tradition as something with a bit more swing. Charming though it is, the urban recovery metaphor is perhaps unsurprising coming from an artist who once titled an album (apparently without irony) Stranded in Suburbia.
Although I intimated earlier that McClelland tries to avoid the funereal turn of many of her aesthetic sisters, it’s equally true that Victoria Day‘s finest successes come when she gives in to the sad ballad impulses dormant in her vocal chords. “Segovia” lays the groundwork early, and though the syrupy strings are a bit too Phil Spector for my liking, it’s a sweet little tune. “Seasoned Lovers” features Ron Sexsmith on guest vocals, which is appropriate because it’s basically one of his songs, if you parse it. “Brake” is gradual and exquisite, and builds to Doucet’s one memorable solo, while the album ends with the curt Neil Young-Crazy Horse approximation “Money Shot”. It floats away nice and easy, like a Cripple Creek ferry.
Maybe focusing unduly on McClelland’s appearance in a few simple album-art shots is unfair, I grant. Just because she’s a pretty lady doesn’t mean she can’t be a torch-blues dynamo. But she isn’t a torch-blues dynamo, even if she makes a laudable effort at it. No critic, no matter his or her level of cynicism, can truly begrudge an artist stretching to be more than they’ve otherwise been (unless that artist is Garth Brooks, but that’s a whole other discussion). But it wouldn’t feel right to look the other way when I see an artist grasping for a higher rung, failing to reach it, and slipping back to where their feet were firmest. There’s no shame in it, but there’s hardly much glory either. Melissa McClelland has a firm enough position to fall back to, and would do well to expand on that position rather than stabbing furtively at impossible higher ones.