[20 September 2009]
Anyone pulling for Rose Melberg to turn back into a twee-pop pixie had better give up that pipe dream. Once the voice of the genre, as the singer/guitarist for crush pop heroines Tiger Trap, cuddlecore punks Go Sailor and sweetly melancholic songbirds the Softies, Melberg packed up the baby blue drapes, plastic tiara, and every other twee object you can think of when the Softies shuttered in 2000, and became an acoustic singer/songwriter. It was a gradual transformation, beginning with the Softies’ final album, Holiday in Rhode Island. Though its arrangements were based in twee, it found Melberg and fellow singer/guitarist Jen Sbragia trading their tinny electrics for earthy acoustics and penning their most complex songs. Then in 2006 she released a solo album (actually her second—the plucky Portola snuck under the radar in 1998) titled Cast Away the Clouds, which had respectable journalists falling over themselves but left me underwhelmed. Melberg will possess a gorgeous voice and simplistic pop appeal until she stops playing music or gets an AARP card, but neither asset was enough to save the album’s heavy-handed, lead-footed singer/songwriter-isms from themselves.
The maturity in Cast Away the Clouds seemed to signal that she’d chosen her direction for good. It makes enough sense. People grow older, not younger, and as Melberg pushes 40 the daintiness of twee pop may not strike her as completely age-appropriate. Hindsight’s 20-20, but still, here she is three years later with Homemade Ship, and with a few small exceptions it sounds almost identical to Cast Away the Clouds. Whether that’s an endorsement or an admonition depends, of course, on whether or not you believe Melberg dropped the ball when she bid Jen Sbragia adieu and closed the door on her cutie-pie persona. But it isn’t just her persona that has changed since then, oh no. It’s the clarity of her guitar, the way you can hear her nails plucking the strings and the squeak when her fingers slide across the fretboard. It’s how direct her voice sounds, not as if she’s cooing in your ear but singing in a studio through the priciest microphone in the world. It’s how the typicality of her songwriting has been construed as a signifier of wisdom. And so much more. On her two most recent records, Melberg is the same but different. It can be a hard notion for some people to accept.
What we get here, once again, is a blunted, cold sterility that flies in the face of what Melberg can do. Believe it or not, she’s actually pulled back the instrumentation and personnel since Cast Away the Clouds. It’s now just her, her acoustic guitar, and P:ano’s Larissa Loyva singing and playing the piano in a couple of spots. That’s it. Next stop: blank CD-R. Instead of providing a sense of honesty or drawing us closer in, this minimal setup only reinforces the music’s emptiness. Even accounting for Melberg’s desire to downscale, her songs need sharper and more distinctive melodies to give them some heft and purpose. She also needs a second vocalist, sorry. When Loyva isn’t contributing the rare anemic backup vocal, Melberg harmonizes with herself, and the dynamic rings hollow. The songs that fare best (“Things That We Do”, “Look Skyward”) work as wallpaper and not much else. In a genre whose usual objective is to leave a mark, this outcome feels like Melberg’s failure to realize her goals, rather than her intention.
Indeed, the lyrical content of Homemade Ship is weighty, bold, and unusually imagistic, but Melberg has a difficult time selling it. Often the arrangements are inimical to lyricism, little more than plucks and strums tethered to anonymous structures, or, in the case of “Truly” and “Clay Bride”, genuinely unworkable ones. As a result, few of her verses stick. But the words themselves also pale. Lyric for lyric, the Softies trump Melberg on her own. Compare this typical Softies line, “And I wasted all my wishes on you / I have nothing left to gain / So goodbye, wishing you well, and hello rain,” with Homemade Ship’s “Moon Singer”: “You are the moon singer / And I am only a raccoon.” A raccoon? On the occasion that Melberg has something serviceable on her hands, something else causes it to choke. A clever pun in “Outlaws” (“The outlaws outnumber the good people / Trying to make a good life, for goodness’ sake”) is trashed when Melberg can’t find an appropriate place to put it. The glow inside the Tara Jane O’Neil-ish “Old Days” burns out as she inexplicably repeats the title, “Wind has blown away all of the old days / The old days.”
Jangled and frustrated, I had to revisit the Softies’ catalog so I could see my old friend again. And to my surprise, going through Holiday in Rhode Island for the millionth time, I found a song I must have missed, called “You and Only You”. There she was, playing this sunny-sweet melody that chucked me headlong into a field of marigolds, singing words I’ve dreamed of saying to someone special: “I’ve been thinking about / You and only you.” So this is love: something beautiful and poetic that, unknowable though it may be, needs no explanation. Rose and Jen let me in here, but Homemade Ship shuts me out, and how can I love that? “Bear in a Cave” sums up the new Melberg rather neatly: “Painting the walls the color of the hills / I am a bear in a cave / My cupboards are full, my fire is lit / I will not answer the door.” There you have it, then. Where once Melberg found solace in the company of others, real or imagined, she now seems content to hibernate, following her own logic and turning her back on the heartbroken faithful.