Melanie Safka, known the world over simply as Melanie, tapped into a deep well of emotion with the powerful anthem "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" and skated into listeners' hearts with "Brand New Key." Though the singer-songwriter's U.S. hits dried up by the early 1980s, she continued to write and record in her disarming and often happily quirky style. A voice of the Vietnam generation, Melanie was content to transport audiences back to the Woodstock era while always authentically speaking to our hearts today. We're deeply saddened to learn of her passing at the age of 76. The Second Disc remembers Melanie's pop artistry with this look at four of her classic albums originally published in 2015 in conjunction with their reissue on Cherry Red's Morello Records imprint. Hopefully these albums will once again return to print in a physical format; all are available on digital/streaming services.
"Well, I got a brand new pair of roller skates/You got a brand new key/I think that we should get together and try them out you see..." With her chart-topping 1971 hit "Brand New Key," Melanie Safka-Schekeryk built on the success of previous hits like the Woodstock-inspired anthem "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" and her cover of The Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday." But "Brand New Key" also unfairly tagged the singer-songwriter as a novelty artist, a notion she was quick to dispose with the series of albums she recorded for her own Neighborhood Records label. Cherry Red Records' Morello label has recently reissued four of those rare Neighborhood LPs on CD, originally released between 1972 and 1975: Stoneground Words, Madrugada, As I See It Now, and Sunset and Other Beginnings.
Melanie's earthy plea to a lover to be "Together Alone" (which the artist performed on The Tonight Show) set the wistful, searching tone of 1972's Stoneground Words. Ruminating on life, love and music itself, the album built on the style of Melanie's Gather Me as another well-crafted statement in song from the maturing artist. The ornate orchestration of "Together," courtesy of Roger Kellaway, joins with gospel-infused background vocals to support Melanie's alternately quavering and confident voice. Like "Together," "Do You Believe" also expresses love with an undercurrent of ache as it builds to an explosion of gospel fervor.
Melanie's role as a musician figures into a number of the songs on Stoneground Words. Though she protests otherwise in "I Am Not a Poet" ("I am not a poet, living is the poem/I am not a singer, I am in the song"), the track successfully convinces otherwise. The world-weary, yearning "Between the Road Signs" could easily take its place in the pantheon of songs of a singer's life on the road; Stoneground's journey of loneliness continues on "Summer Weaving." With a stark arrangement markedly different from the more grandiose charts surrounding it, "Weaving" has a baroque beauty all its own. Melanie and her husband-producer Peter Schekeryk further the diverse sounds on Stoneground with the celebratory, rhythmic "Song of the South" and smoky, jazz-infused "Here I Am." Two bonus singles have been added to Morello's reissue: the country-flavored "Bitter Bad" and the pop-oriented "Seeds," with just enough innuendo to satisfy fans of "Brand New Key."
1974's Madrugada followed Stoneground Words as Melanie's next studio effort; the live Melanie at Carnegie Hall set had been a stopgap release in between. The bright, upbeat ode to rebirth, "Love to Lose Again," opened a very different set than its predecessor. For one thing, the album was culled from various recording sessions and studios, and arrangements were split between Roger Kellaway and Ron Frangipane, the keyboardist who had played on Stoneground. For another, there were as many cover versions as original songs. (Interpretations of others' songs had long been part of Melanie's repertoire; Stoneground featured just one cover, Pete Seeger's "My Rainbow Race.") Whereas Stoneground revels in moody balladry, Madrugada balances the light and the dark.
Melanie's strengths as an interpreter shine on the five covers here. Woody Guthrie's outlaw tale "Pretty Boy Floyd" is joined by five pop-rock songs including Jim Croce's mordant "Lover's Cross" and Randy Newman's gorgeous "I Think It's Going to Rain Today." She takes Carole King and Gerry Goffin's bittersweet "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" as an uptempo, soulful girl group tribute and returns to the Jagger-Richards songbook on a slow-burning "Wild Horses," surrounded by Kellaway's elegant strings.
Of the original songs, "Maybe Not for a Lifetime" juxtaposes a dark lyric that would have been right at home on Stoneground Words to a jaunty melody. "Holding Out," driven by Ron Frangipane's piano, has a world-weariness to it. The funereal "The Actress" echoes the themes of "I Am Not a Poet" and "Between the Road Signs" in exploring the life of a performer ("She will not live for friends/She's gonna die for strangers") and its sacrifices. The folksy "Pine and Father" concludes Madrugada on a gentle, folksy note, even if it's an anti-climactic one after the dramatic "The Actress." Morello's reissue adds one bonus track, "I Am Being Guided," which was included on the U.S. version of the album in place of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow."
Less than a year after Madrugada, Melanie returned with As I See It Now. Her husband/producer Peter Schekeryk aimed for a more organic production, setting out to better integrate Melanie's voice within the tracks rather than on top of them. Melanie contributed nine originals which were joined by a gender-reversed rewrite of Jesse Winchester's "Yankee Lady" as "Yankee Man" (Melanie reveals in the liner notes that Winchester was none too happy), a slow, languid take on Bob Dylan's oft-recorded "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," and a romp through the 1925 Walter Donaldson/Gus Kahn standard "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" rendered in a novelty style not unknown to Melanie. (A fourth cover, "La Bamba," is included on the CD as the lone bonus track. The non-LP single scored the artist a hit in Italy, of all places!)
A pronounced country-rock influence permeates a number of the tracks on As I See It Now including the reflective "You're Not a Bad Ghost, Just an Old Song," "Sweet Misery" and "Monongahela River," though other songs, like the stomping "Eyes of Man" (incorporating Native American-influenced chants) and the spare, near-sketch of a song "Stars Up There" betray no country sound at all. (One track, "Chart Song," was pulled from a live performance at London's Theatre Royal, and features Mike Heron and Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band.) Melanie's strongest songs are the ones that sound the most personal, such as the evocative "Autumn Lady" or "Record Machine." On the latter, the singer imagines "Someday I'll be an old record/A picture of what once had been," expanding the song's purview to universal truths about aging ("Someday they'll laugh at our hair/And the clothes that we wore/Like we've all laughed before..."). As I See It Now closes with its sing-along title track addressed directly to her fans, another personal statement that could be Melanie's credo: "My visions in sound/Delivered my sorrows to you, and you found me/Let's dream together for the ride..."
The title of the fourth and final album in this series, Sunset and Other Beginnings, indicated the end of one era and the dawn of another. Safka and Schekeryk had recently relocated their family from New Jersey to Tennessee, and she felt reinvigorated by her new surroundings. The resulting LP was her most eclectic yet, with original songs surrounded by compositions from the realms of Broadway, pop and folk. Though it was recorded in Nashville, Sunset bore the influence of the radio-friendly California sound.
Melanie's original "Perceive It" kicks off Sunset with the clear-headed, unsentimental admonition to "perceive it and say goodbye to it/Don't hold on to any one moment/You've got to love it and then release it." Set to a breezy, Joni Mitchell-esque melody, "Perceive It" was the sound of Melanie looking forward. So was "People Are Just Getting Ready," another live-for-the-present statement ("Sometimes we're slow to realize/Harmony is paradise and here and now is where it lies"). The artist reconnected with her simple folk roots on songs like "The Sun and the Moon and "Afraid of the Dark" though the latter is distinguished by its pretty, spare piano-and-winds arrangement.
The 1947 Broadway musical Brigadoon might have been an unlikely source for material in 1975, but Melanie drew "Almost Like Being in Love" from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's classic score. The buoyant melody was reinvented in a minor key ("I didn't know the real chords," Melanie admits in the liner notes) as a soft-rock ballad, adding a tinge of irony and sadness to the beguiling tune. Despite being released as a single, it didn't score Safka a hit. Three years later, in 1978, Michael Johnson gave the song a yacht rock makeover that seemingly owes a debt to Melanie's interpretation (right down to the prominent saxophone). He earned a Top 40 hit with it. Melanie drew even further back on Broadway to 1927's Show Boat for an unusual and brief uptempo arrangement of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's immortal "Ol' Man River."
Safka once again paid tribute to bygone girl-group sounds with her melding of The Supremes' classic "You Can't Hurry Love" and The Shirelles' "Mama Said." Her vocal as well as the medley's twangy guitars reflect the Nashville locale. She and the band went funky on the blues staple "I Got My Mojo Working" and gentle on their light, loping cover of Lindisfarne's "Meet Me on the Corner," retitled "Dream Seller." One bonus track is added to Morello's reissue - the live version of "Beautiful People" from Royal Albert Hall which was released as the B-side of "Almost Like Being in Love."
Sunset and Other Beginnings would be Melanie's final album on Neighborhood Records, which she and Schekeryk would soon shutter. (The label would be revived briefly in the 1980s.) All four titles in this reissue program from Morello feature fine new essays by Mark Paytress drawing on fresh interviews with the artist; Western Star Studios has remastered each album. This welcome, long-overdue series casts light on an all-but-forgotten period from a musical survivor who has stayed true to herself over six decades in the face of changing musical tastes. Fans of Melanie will no doubt wish to revisit this Neighborhood.