Melody Gardot has released another exceptional album, My One and Only Thrill. As enthusiastic as I was about her previous disc, Worrisome Heart, which I wrote about here, her newest shows off her vocal and songwriting abilities in a new — one might even say daring — direction. But she's daring in a surprising way.
It's almost required these days for a young musician who hasn't acquired a large following to tread the well-paved, attention-seeking path of "edginess." But Melody — her music draws you in so intimately that it's impossible to refer to her other than by her first name — has gone her own way, and it's so unfashionably retro as to be breathtaking.
Plenty of singers and songwriters emulate big band and swing era styles. It's a comfortable niche that has its fans. Melody has adapted for her own use a different era of popular music, one that has nearly dropped out of the collective memory. The sound on most of My One and Only Thrill might best be described as pre–rock and roll, early 1950s pop.
That includes string orchestral arrangements, unashamed sentimentality, and lazy-afternoon pacing. Most of what she has written for this album, and the instrumental framing, would not have surprised someone who turned on the radio in 1953 and heard it emerging from the Philco. You can imagine it as theme songs for early big-budget CinemaScope romance movies like Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.
Needless to say, that format isn't exactly what many are clamoring for in our cynical times. I imagine lots of producers, if they heard this album as a demo tape, would wind up in an oxygen tent. Melody must have had fierce self-confidence to go in this direction without first having made her reputation in a more conventional mode.
Her confidence wouldn't count for much if she didn't make it pay off, but she does. She believes in what she's doing — no hints of campiness or condescension. Her voice, rich, varied in color, can be tender but not syrupy, regretful without self-pity, or playful as the mood demands. She writes good lyrics, better than those of the songs of a half-century ago that she has taken as a model.
Not everything on the album is in the sweet-backing-strings vein. There is a bluesy item (wonderful muted horns), a couple of cheery bossa nova and Caribbean-inflected numbers. But her singular achievement is successfully reviving a musical genre that had been given up for dead.
Melody's vocal delivery shows such versatility that you feel she could do practically anything her heart turned to. But you sense that her heart would truly have to be in it before she would take it on.
My one worry for her is that she is so talented that the pressure is bound to increase. She's potentially a big money maker, and she will face constant temptation to turn to a slick, commercial sound. There's no reason she shouldn't switch styles, as she has between her previous album and the new one, but she'll need to hold onto that inner direction that has already made her one of the most remarkable young musicians around.