It’s easy to miss the Lilith Fair sometimes. While Sarah MacLachlan’s project was flawed at best, featuring only a certain type of women in music instead of the larger picture, it was a step in the right direction and great exposure for the female singer/songwriter. Now, with an overabundance of cutely produced, barely legal blonde girls substituting for women in pop music, it’s hard not to wonder where the women who are making music with meaning have gone.
Michelle Malone is a step in the right direction. Although her country-tinged hometown rock isn’t particularly inventive, she sings with honesty and heart. Hello Out There won’t be anything new to anyone who enjoys the girl-with-guitar thing, but Malone brings an almost spiritual exuberance to her music that keeps it refreshing. She’s not breaking new ground for women in music, but who says she has to? Malone is proving that the female singer/songwriter is still out there, even if she’s not as visible as she used to be.
Malone’s troubled and passionate voice gives a depth to her songs, conveying emotion without having to force the issue. Her tenderhearted guitar playing is complemented by her sensitive backing band, creating a sense of open understanding. Malone sometimes falls into the typical trap of whining about the problems life has sent her, but mostly she’s just expressing what’s in her heart. Her tendency to wallow in pain is counteracted by her obvious intelligence on songs like “Lifted” and “Surrender”. The mostly mellow, quiet quality of these songs makes them feel intimate and personal. Malone’s world is limited mostly to what is inside her head, but what she sings about is universal.
For all of that, however, Malone’s lyrics are often slightly overdone. On the intriguing but ultimately dull “Caffeine and Catharsis” she sings “Why do they call it quicksand when there’s time enough to know that you were just an extra in a cancelled episode”. Her comparisons are interesting, but don’t quite work. While “Any Day Now” is touching, it is marred by a strange contrast of poetic language and plain language. She sings “All I want is a phone call from you”, after an elegant passage of late-night observations, making the last line feel out of place. Malone does better when she just sings what she means instead of trying to wrap it in pretty words.
Michelle Malone tends to overcome her flaws, though, creating music that’s compelling enough to pay attention to. She provides proof that there are still women out there making sincere music. She’s not great, but she’s good enough, and that seems to be all that really matters with Hello Out There.