August 27, 2009

Album Review: Melissa McClelland Renders A Masterwork with 'Victoria Day'

Blasphemy and vengeance — the kind that fuel small-town rumors of late-night dalliances and other illicit delights — yield to love among the ruins on Victoria Day, the latest album by singer/songwriter Melissa McClelland.

Rich with folk, gospel, and blues, the songs on Victoria Day underscore searing, often-bittersweet yarns with the Gothic austerity of a murder ballad.

Her voice gorgeous in its winsome grace, McClelland is at turns womanly and whip-smart, with an air of stone-cold defiance coursing through even her most self-incriminating admissions. “I have sinned, I’ve been around,” she concedes on “A Girl Can Dream,” a rockabilly rant of repentance and wishful thinking. She serves up a comparable shot of sass (hold the guilt) with “I Blame You,” a frisky rhythm underscoring her playful reproach.

She’s a picturesque storyteller, populating otherwise barren ground with a cast of shady characters. To the raunchy, gin-soaked riff that drives “When the Lights Went Off in Hogtown,” McClelland renders a slice of backwoods nightlife behind closed doors — or at least away from anyone who’d judge — in lines like, “Now the smart girls just got pretty/And they’re not going home tonight.” Likewise, she laces a refrain of blessed reassurance in “God Loves Me” with scenes that aren’t exactly righteous.

For all the bravado she brings to these songs — and never more so than on the gut-bucket stomp, “Glenrio,” in which she socks some philandering harlot in the mouth, snarling afterward, “She asked for it!” — McClelland eventually lets her guard down. In “Seasoned Lovers,” she pairs up with Ron Sexsmith, lamenting a romance that’s lost its spark, having become about as passionate as watching paint dry on plywood. Also, enriched by elegant strings and her only performance on piano, “Segovia” finds her reminiscing the first rush of an old love affair. And on the most achingly sensuous song on the album, “Cry On My Shoulder,” McClelland gives one forsaken, heartbroken man a reason to get happy. “It won’t hurt, I swear/I am the month of May,” she sings in wistful breaths. “I’m gonna kiss your blues away.”

Exceptional from start to finish, Victoria Day is a masterwork.