Katie Melua: The House

"No one has to die! You could live, live, live!" It may be a lie, but somehow Katie Melua has been renewed.

Katie Melua

The House

Label: Dramatico
US Release Date: 2010-08-03
UK Release Date: 2010-05-24
Artist Website

Katie Melua always had an air of The Stepford Wives about her. Inoffensive, house trained, porcelain pretty, scandal free. Her three polite albums sailed through the night scooping up squillions of sales despite nobody actually remembering any of the tunes. The only thing witnesses recalled when asked were Melua's chucklesome lyrics -- prime offenders being "If you were a piece of wood / I'd nail you to the floor" and "You set me free, as if you'd taken me / Halfway up the Hindu Kush". Fnar, fnar.

BUT SUDDENLY! In an act of admirable teenage rebellion (well, aged 25), she's flipped the script and fired a distress signal to reclusive genius Sir William of Orbit. The boffin behind Madge's lifesaving Ray of Light!? Hell this guy made All Saints listenable!! An escape plan was hatched. In no time, Melua was seen scaling the city walls and bustin' free from her owner, Mike "Don't Mention The Wombles" Batt, AKA Battman. The House is the closest pop has seen to a Logan's Run-style breakout since "When Kylie Met Hutch". Run Girl! Run! Don't Look Back!

Well OK, it's not that exciting, but it's sometimes darn close. We're not talking Metal Machine Music, Achtung Baby, or Congratulations-level makeovers, but there are slithers of sound that deserve a doff of thy cap. The House begins with the delicately threatening "I'd Love to Kill You" (ooh, I told you, girl gone wild!) which transfixes like a Siren's curse. "I'd love to kill you by a stream / Where no one can hear my baby scream". Blimey, our lil' girl's all grown up. Spin in a few feral "ooooh's" and you've got, zoiks, near Buckley-esque chills. This swiftly bows to recent single "The Flood", surely one of the most WTF? comebacks in recent pop memory. It echoes not only Madge's stunning, shivering "Frozen", but also Queen's crawling, operatic "Innuendo" as it swings seamlessly from Arabian funeral march to death disco and back again. In other words, "blimey" and "crikey".

The House sadly freefalls somewhat after peaking so early. "A Happy Place" is a hopskotch skipping dandy of riddles and rhymes under a pantomime sky, whilst "A Moment of Madness" is playtime Sally Bowles's "I'm Mad Me" tap dancin' with legs akimbo. Tastefully done, but unconvincing despite the latter's kinky aside "In your drawer / There's some leather in there". "The One I Love Is Gone" is funeral pace delta blues, but via the stage school door, and "Plague of Love" is just rubbish, a swinging '60s pastiche with sub-Bond theme delusions of grandeur. Despite Melua's angelic voice, a good section of The House should be, well, condemned.

But when it shines, it dazzles. Sometimes her wacky imagery just works. "Red Balloons" paints a sea of lonely hearts floating in balloons across an ocean of sky: "I put my heart in a red balloon / But I let it go too soon". It's carried aloft by wistful acoustic guitars, sweeping drum brushes, and that tender voice. "The sky is full of red balloons / Red balloons are full of broken hearts". The romantic in me declares victory! Ditto the brooding, passionate "No Fear of Heights", with its heroic mantra "No fear of the fall". It's an acoustic cousin of "Iris" by Goo Goo Dolls and "All I Want Is You" by U2 and is simply divine.

As in the beginning, a pair of knockouts bookend our stay at The House. "Twisted" is worthy of El Perro Del Mar in its marriage of pitter-patter pop and burning sensuality: "Like the roots of a tree / You got into me" and "This beast inside is counting to ten / We're all alone / We're near my home". Steamy windows, love? Finally there's the icy, atmospheric title track where "Flowers in the wallpaper bloom". It's a midnight tour through Chez Melua, wondering "Is somebody watching me? You really shouldn't see". "Look away now, Look away now", she whispers. It trails vanishing phantoms in the night sky and is a haunting fader .

It wouldn't be Melua though without some lyrical levity ('fess up folks you love it) and The House delivers. The whole concept of "Tiny Alien" is genius. A tale of a stranded E.T. tryin' to make an honest wage in the Big City, "You've just got to take the pressure" advises Melua. "I won't shoot you down / With my science, and reliance". It's hard not to imagine the video, probably starring Warwick Davis, painted green, trying to fix the photocopier. I do feel bad giggling, though, as the tune is quite lovely. Naughty music critic! However I'll say nothing about the tumbling clutter of "God on the Drums, Devil on the Bass", I'll just leave you with that title. (Some towering skyscraper horns are buried in the mix, though).

The House is one small step for mankind, one giant leap for Katie Melua. At least half of the record is fragrantly classy and, occasionally, even beautiful. Despite lacking William Orbit's trademark sound, it's got sparks of invention and wonder. My only hope is that our escapee evades recapture from Battman mediocrity and remains underground and wombling free. Maybe Melua has decided to be a runner. Maybe like Stepford rebel Joanna Eberhart, she's defiantly concluded "I guess I want to be remembered".


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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