Release date: March 1, 2021
By David Whiteis
Photo: Jennifer Noble
The music of Chicago vocalist/guitarist Melody Angel speaks to contemporary issues and concerns with unabashed militancy, yet it’s also empowered by an overriding determination that a better life – a better world – can be possible. In other words, it’s the timeless message of the blues, re-imagined and reanimated by a 21st Century blueswoman who is just beginning to come into her own. Angel has released multiple recordings in a variety of formats; She Black, her latest, is scheduled to drop officially on March 1 (See her website www.melodyangelmusic.com for updates).
The most immediately striking thing about Melody Angel, aside from her formidable (and still developing) prowess as a guitarist, is the uncompromising honesty of her lyric storytelling. She inhabits her politically charged vignettes of struggle and survival as one who’s lived them, compelling her listeners to experience them the same way, with no room for liberal bromides or ironic detachment ("I dare you judge me in your glass house,” she snarled in “Cease Fire,” from her 2016 CD In This America). But she won’t give in to cynicism or despair: As she sang in “Rebel,” from the same disc: “I got the looks, I got the clothes, I got the sex appeal. . . . I’m a rebel with a cause and it feels so good!”
That fusion of militancy and freedom-bound determination infuses the new disc, as well. Its overriding theme is the ongoing struggle of Black women to achieve parity and dignity in a society that has long attempted to deny them both. The title song, which opens the set, also sets the tone: “Can’t go here, can’t go there / There’s no justice, there’s no fair / She Black! She Black!,” Angel sings, decrying a life of being “forced to gather in the ghettos / where our children will be bought and sold / for the drugs, for the prisons / send the cops to kill what’s left of our sons . . .,” in a voice as focused and hard-edged as any she’s ever summoned. But although her imagery can be stark, even bleak, the music makes it clear that she won’t succumb: “Hear my pain,” she wails, then rips into a guitar solo that soars with a terrifying yet thrilling ferocity – summoning the timeless power of the blues to mine hope from despair.
“Invisible Girl” strikes a similar balance between outrage and inspiration (“They don’t see you, they don’t hear you / They don’t pretend to know your name . . . Invisible girl, don’t try for them, try for you / ‘Cause in the end, they’ll need you”), as an ironically lilting, pop-tinged cadence dances in the background. She cuts fiercely back into personal testimony in the fiery, rock-powered “They Don’t Know” (“Ripped from my hands, tore down my plans / Buried my friends, tormented my dreamer’s head . . . They don’t know what I’ve been through / They don’t know what I’ve lived through”), as her voice modulates from a seething half-whisper into a full-bodied, anguished scream, and her guitar work explodes with near-volcanic ferocity. Angel counts such fretboard innovators as Hendrix and Prince (as well as blues artists like Otis Rush) among her idols; her technique isn’t as flashy as theirs, and it’s still a work in progress (as is her youthful, clear-toned vocal delivery), but she’s already in command of a sophisticated harmonic sense, a mature-beyond-her-years fusion of tonal aggression and stylistic discipline, and an apparently unerring knack of fashioning her musical statements to both reflect and enhance the emotional atmosphere invoked by her songs. (Melody, by the way – and yes, that’s her real name – played all the instruments on this recording, including drums.)
The power-pop anthem “Freedom” is a revolutionary manifesto that fearlessly melds the political and the personal (“Freedom! Promised but never fulfilled – so here I come!”); then, as if to head off false-bottomed “support” from self-styled “allies” and liberal platitude-slingers, she lays down the line: “What are you doing on your platform / Sometimes you mention BLM, sure . . . Only an ally when we’re watching / Making a hashtag ain’t real action. . .” And once again, the backing track embodies the mixture of fury and hard-eyed determination that permeates her lyrics.
Angel wouldn’t be a blueswoman if she didn’t delve into matters of the heart. Characteristically, she does so with a mixture of grace and steely resolve. “Hey Love” finds the singer pledging fidelity to a romantic partner – the most pop-infused offering here, it reveals a heretofore unexplored (and welcome) side of Angel’s musical personality. In “One Little Hit,” which sounds explicitly designed to get club audiences dancing to exhaustion, she assumes the role of spiritual daughter to Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Millie Jackson, Denise LaSalle, Koko Taylor, and all the other unapologetically erotic blues queens of history (“Look at ‘em staring at me! Hey, back up – not you! But you? I’ll take you!”). Even here, though, she can’t resist throwing a little shade at the infatuated, whipped mope struggling to stay afloat under the erotic and emotional onslaught of a full-blooded Black woman who “came out of the womb a pretty thing / grew into a body worth jealousy,” and who now “walks with the rhythm to hypnotize” while her “mix of lust and love is haunting you . . . she got you sewed up . . . one little hit, and that was it.”
Some listeners have detected a Tracy Chapman influence in Angel’s singing, especially her ballad work, and although she denies any intentional homages, the similarities become especially apparent on tracks like “1621 Downs Street,” a series of autobiographical vignettes that include a memorable recollection of the mixed feelings she had upon graduating from high school – hope for the future, already tempered by experience (“Graduation, ‘cause we fought temptation, now we’re responsible for a better nation . . . don’t let me fall through the cracks, don’t let me disappear . . .”). It’s set to a gentle, folk-like backing, with some deft acoustic fingerpicking to heighten the feel of intimacy.
“Because It’s You,” another pop-folk outing, is a tender, yet emotionally complex, paean to friendship, as the singer both celebrates and sags under the burden of a lifelong bond in which “it’s not hard to fall apart, but it’s hard to fall apart in front of you . . . I love you more than I can explain, but I feel like I’m bringing you down in my pain. . .. ” Angel’s voice here ascends into an almost bird-like warble. By far the most personal song, though, is “First Unconditional Love,” a paean to her mother, Stephanie Crystal, who contributes a guest vocal – a raw, occasionally rough around the edges but unfiltered look into Melody Angel’s heart.
Meanwhile, Angel harbors no illusions about what it takes to truly dedicate one’s life to social change, and that includes the discipline and moral fortitude one has to maintain. The tough-love manifesto “Get Over Yourself” is nothing short of an aural training manual for warriors (“Get up and get over yourself / Ain’t nobody holding your hand through this hell . . . I’m telling you the truth to heal ya, reveal ya. . .”). Even more incendiary, both musically and lyrically is “You Let Yo Mama Down,” a scathing takedown of those Black men who would exploit and betray their own community.
“You Let Yo Mama Down” is the first time Angel has fully showcased her rapping ability on disc. Powered by a tumultuous blues-rock backing, the meld of genres has the potential to “cross over” to diverse audiences, if they have the fortitude and the will to accept it on its own terms.
That, in fact, is what most characterizes the music of Melody Angel; it’s not for the faint-hearted, the easily offended, or the squeamish. But then, neither is life itself – nor, at its heart and in its essence, is the blues.
Buy or hear the music: www.melodyangelmusic.com
About the Author: David Whiteis is a Chicago writer and educator, who was awarded the Blues Foundation's Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. He is the author of Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories; Southern Soul-Blues; Blues Legacy: Tradition and Innovation in Chicago; and Always the Queen: The Denise LaSalle Story. His articles have appeared in numerous blues and jazz magazines, both in the U.S. and overseas.