ALBUM REVIEW by Victor Stranges
Melanie Anne Safka-Schekeryk (more popularly known as “Melanie”) established herself as a bona fide performer in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village, New York, which led to her first recording contract with Columbia Records in the United States. She released two singles on the label and later signed to Buddah Records.
She achieved some modest European chart success with songs released from her first two albums on Buddah but it was her performance at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 which paved her way into the mainstream consciousness.
Melanie cites her inspiration for her first major hit in the U.S. (and Australia), “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)”, from her spirited performance at Woodstock where audience members lit matches and lighters during her performance. She was instrumental in this future rock concert phenomenon of bringing candles to shows. That is until BIC launched their disposable lighter in 1973, which would take the place of candles from then on. “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” is a rousing song with gospel-style vocal accompaniment from the Edwin Hawkins Singers.
Australian label, Possum Records, has just released a remastered version of the album which interestingly kicks off with the B-side of the single “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)”, and is also called “Candles In The Rain.” It is a spoken word recording and it channels, yet pre-dates, Patti Smith who found success some five years later in the early days of punk. This track could have easily been included on Smith’s debut album, “Horses.” It is an uncanny soundalike that really puts front and centre Melanie’s artistry and confidence as a poet.
The songs on the album are mainly self-penned except for a couple of offerings. The James Taylor song about homesickness, “Carolina On My Mind,” gets a graceful treatment as does the Jagger/Richards song, “Ruby Tuesday.” In fact, “Ruby Tuesday” was her first U.K. hit but her version was not a direct rendering of the original in its phrasing. The singer slowly releases the words from her mouth yet somehow manages to catch up by the end of the chorus.
“Citiest People” is about the hard knocks of coming to New York City and how they left indelible character traits on the author’s life. It’s a slow melancholic ballad of which the title is tongue in cheek but not coming from a place of humour, but rather, pain. A string section comes and goes making a pronounced statement of its own and somehow befriends an innocent glockenspiel that marries the lyrical sentiment so well.
“To the citiest people in the whole wide world
You’ve been unkind to an un-city girl
From the stone walls you grew
So I’m not blaming you”
– Citiest People
“What Have They To My Song Ma” is delightfully humorous, helped along by accordion, honky-tonk piano, and some French lyrics to boot. This a stark reminder that when you release an original song, anyone can cover it… for better or worse. An amusing fact is that this song was later covered by The New Seekers, without the irony. Look what they’ve done!
“Alexander Beetle” is a song about losing your pet beetle as can happen when your grandmother opens the matchbox it was stored in.
“The Good Guys” is a study of character building using someone else’s personality and looks for the “outside walls”, but they “ haven’t got a thing within.”
“Lovin’ Baby Girl” is a song about selling your wares as a musician and yet the subject could be applied to any employment situation that involves substituting a personal emotional connection for pay.
“Leftover Wine” became a live favourite of Melanie for the vocal emotional doors it opens in the listeners' minds. A meditative track if you want it to be.
The spare arrangements from producer Peter Schekeryk were developed from a very close relationship with Melanie. In fact, they were married in 1968 and were lifelong partners until his death in 2010. Melanie described their working relationship with Michael Dwyer from the Sydney Morning Herald while promoting Australian shows in 2018...
“He was eastern European in that Phil Spector-ish way. He wasn’t a monster and he never killed anybody but you know, he had this intensity that … I’m not sure where to go with that.… I was with this man for 45 years and we were linked completely as an artistic couple. I ran songs by him. I would run a line by him. He would tell me, ‘That’s a hit’, or ‘You should call it something else’. We bounced off each other in a way that, when that was no longer there, I saw who I was, all by myself.”
“Candles In The Rain” is a far cry from much of today’s pop music where thoughtful introspection is not seen as a marketable feature in the mainstream. Well, it was a different time then and Melanie went on to sell over 80 million albums in the years that followed.
Melanie was invited by the lead singer of Pulp, Jarvis Cocker, to perform at the Meltdown Festival in 2007 at the Royal Festival Hall in London. The sold-out show had critics heaping praise on her performance. A fitting write-up from the U.K. publication, The Independent, is quoted as saying, “it was hard to disagree that Melanie has earned her place alongside Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell and Marianne Faithfull in the pantheon of iconic female singers. Meltdown was all the better for her presence.”
Her influence can be heard in countless performances and cover versions of her original songs including Mott The Hoople, Greta Van Fleet, Dolly Parton, Todd Rundgren, and Ray Charles. Her songs have been sampled including “Do You Believe?” which appeared on Phoniks’ remix of Wu-Tang Clan’s “Back In The Game.”
Today Melanie is not necessarily one of the most recognizable names in pop history but for the modern-day chanteuse or songwriting fan, “Candles In The Wind” is a ‘must listen to’ album for its charm, humour, wordplay, sincerity, and storytelling.