Deep Below Heaven (Wild Kindness Records)
In a short thirty-six minutes, Melaena Cadiz’s Deep Below Heaven moves through a variety of genres and themes, all tied together with a soulful voice that is lacking in much of the other music that is coming out at present. Obviously there are other fine singers out there, but there is something more to Cadiz’s style and tone that pulled me deeper into this album. This album has a sheen on top of it. You may think you know what you’re getting into on a superficial level, but there’s much more to it than that. There’s a power to this music and this artist that is beyond the landscape of music presently being released.
On first listening, the album didn’t feel that different to me than a lot of what I hear coming from the current folk scene of the New York area. Cadiz does what plenty of others do, reaching back into America’s rich history of sound in order to collate, providing us with a style that seems old while being a rather modern and “on trend” production. However, I think if you only listened to this album in relation to doing something else (like conversing or cooking), you might think this album not worthy of a second listen, that there is no nuance within it.
And you’d be wrong. Deep Below Heaven fits perfectly into its genre and time period but there is something else that I do not hear in other music that swirls around me. Cadiz buries herself at the back of these tracks, in the lyrics, in the bottom of her wonderful guitar playing and in the equally wonderful playing of those around her. Within these layers is someone who has written beyond the confessional lyric, attempting to delve more deeply into our various natures as humans. A short album that cuts twice as deep.
The title track serves as an equally brief aperitif, or perhaps more of a roadmap through the album’s lenses: We’re going to be brought into a space where folk and country and soulful singing overlap with lyrics that are personal yet distant at times. We hear that right away: The city (whether real or imagined), where everything good and bad in a society filters through, fits into a landscape of hope and loss. That hope is ours but that loss is all in the “me” who wonders whether they will be remembered. It’s a tricky connection to make. Where do these lines overlap? What is our role in the singer’s psyche and what role, within the rest of the tracks, will the singer fill for us?
We get a clue from Chris Tucci’s wonderful paper cut animation video for “Deep Below Heaven.” The lyrics are sung with a sort of whimsy but within the images that back up the song, there is a darkness. There are happy images of the moon, of Cadiz herself, but there’s also the escaping smoke and that moon is obscured by the clouds. People are drinking, experiencing the darkness that surrounds them and allowing for that darkness to surround the listener is the best way to listen to the album. Cadiz’s voice lulls you, teases you, and makes you feel like your life is moving in the right direction, but the lyrics belie this, showing you the burnt edges that signal that everything else is black.
“Swinging Low” is very much like stepping back into albums and artists that I’ve adored most of my life. Here, Cadiz hits a sweet spot between Exile on Main St.’s country-twinged “Sweet Virginia” and nearly anything off of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. The best word is, unfortunately, a cliché: mellow. But Cadiz captures that sound in a much more subtle way because she turns the lens back towards herself, something Mick Jagger does rarely, and something Harrison would probably never have liked hearing about himself. Cadiz is never more charming than when she uses the “I” to really pull herself into her own work, even while accepting that we together are a collective “I” in these songs.
However, because the songs are generally quick (most of them fit the rock standard of three minutes or less), one thing that Cadiz rarely does on the album is dwell. She rarely, throughout the course of the album, spends time on one subject, one idea, for too long. Instead, like the genres and styles she’s playing within, she trips through topics and ideas, allowing the album as a whole to build on themes of isolation and anxiety. However, in “Home Town,” that changes a bit.
“Home Town” is very much the centerpiece of the album, the point at which the album’s styles and concepts come together. The wonderful slide guitar (provided by Dylan veteran David Mansfield) ties the song to a feeling of down-home which is then pressed so perfectly against Cadiz’s description here. This hometown isn’t terribly different that Springsteen’s of the 1950s. What’s supposed to be comfortable here has turned into a place where dreams go to die (as opposed to the city of the title track). It’s the place everyone wants to escape from but from which they can never really leave.
Here, the singer is someone who has escaped, but has come to understand the place she has left so much better than remaining in it could ever have accomplished. The chorus really speaks to what a hometown should be: “Give me shelter/Give me peace until I’m gone,” Cadiz sings, nearly crooning. A hometown is a place to simply exist until one can escape but it ought provide one with the desire to leave it behind—“Give me just a little strength.” She can now carry on, despite the history of sadness that pervades every aspect of this town’s being and in the singer’s existence there previously. “Things fell apart in my hometown,” Cadiz sings, adding to “Saw it ending before it ever did,” covering an album’s worth of lyrics in two lines. Everything fell apart, yes, but we’re already told nothing has changed. The moment in which she universalizes her experience pulls the album into a tight frame of moving beyond an experience and coming to understand that experience after it has passed.
Cadiz’s ability to go through a variety of Americana styles shows an artist in the midst of experimenting with her range. She’s trying to feel out the edges of her capability and I suspect that after having put out Deep Below Heaven, she’ll find she has few limits, that she is capable of doing so much with her skills and her voice. I have wondered more than once, however, if she plays with style as someone who cannot settle or someone who is searching for her place within an ever-changing and highly scrutinized genre of music. I think it’s the former: she’s not happy with one sound or one way of doing things but rather happy to display her dynamic abilities.
Deep Below Heaven is the quintessential interpretation of the mid-’70s post-country/post-psychedelic album, it’s a mellow feel harkening back to the earthy sounds of that era, coming after the sonic explorations of the previous decade. Her exploration into this style of laid-back folk comes with an understanding of absence. “Won’t you remember me/when I’m gone?” Cadiz asks at the end of the title track. There’s no forgetting what we have been through and we won’t be forgetting Cadiz anytime soon either.
Photo of Brooklyn Rod & Gun show w/David Turbeville © Nicole Franzen.