In many ways The House is nothing new for Melua. Complexly beautiful melodies...CHECK. Haunting choruses...CHECK. Meaningful lyrics...CHECK. What The House has that previous albums did not is producer William Orbit. Evidently, Melua's alluring vocals were enough to bring Orbit out of semi-retirement, which should be considered something of a compliment. Known for his work with a variety of pop and electronica artists including Étienne Daho, U2, All Saints and Madonna, (for whom he produced the ever-fabulous Ray of Light album) Orbit's collaboration with Katie Melua might seem like a bit of a stretch...but it's surprisingly perfect.
For those fans of Melua's traditional folk/pop sound, The House does not disappoint in the slightest. The album's opening track, "I'd Love To Kill You" would surely be right at home on either of Melua's last 2 records. On "The Flood" we really get the first taste of William Orbit's genius. The song's intro is as unassuming as any of her other tracks. Lush orchestration (provided by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) layered with crisp, clear vocals and precise lyrical annunciation paint a beautiful picture. Then...2 minutes in, like a flash flood...a tempo change that turns the song into a disco floor-filler like nothing Melua has ever done before. Then...about 3 minutes and twenty seconds in...the disco ball retreats and the song ends softly as it began. Genius.
Co-penned by Melua and Guy Chambers, second UK single "A Happy Place," (follow up to "The Flood") is an obvious choice for a second single. The aggressive string arrangement, mixed with Melua's haunting vocal, combined with Orbit's electronic influence help make "A Happy Place" one of the standout tracks on the album. "A Moment Of Madness" (another Melua/Chambers collaboration) is a sultry, sensual jazzy number that recalls something from an old-time musical. On "Red Balloons," Melua makes magic with help from UK singer/songwriter Polly Scattergood. This heart-wrenching and poignant ballad is a stunning addition to the album. Melua's vocal is perfect here, balancing both restraint and power throughout.
"The sky is full of red balloons"Tiny Alien" is a silly little song which perfectly blends Melua's traditional, more organic sound with little Orbit's signature electronic-influence. On the Melua-penned "No Fear Of Heights" we really see Melua's talent as a songwriter as well as her beautiful lower register. The only track on the album NOT penned by Melua, "The One I Love Is Gone" (written by Bill Monroe) is a beautiful torch song exercising Melua's stunning and emotive vocals over a beautiful, sad melody. "Plague Of Love" is a busy, cluttered song. Lots going on in this one. I'm really not sure if it's aurally pleasing or bordering on sensory overload. Regardless, there's something interesting about this Melua/Rick Nowels co-penned track.
Red balloons are full of broken hearts
Broken hearts are floating by a chance
Will they burst or drift
Reuniting with long-time producer/songwriter Mike Batt, "God On The Drums, Devil On The Bass" is 'outer space rock & roll' - complete with techno blips, heavy guitars and edgy vocals. It's nice to see Batt and Melua back together again producing something rather unexpected. While this song definitely took a few listens for me but I'm loving Orbit's influence here. "Twisted" is another standout on the album for me. "Ooh baby I’m twisted. Ooh baby I’m twisted," Melua sings. Her vocals complement the electric guitar perfectly. "Ooh I’m twisted, just twisted. Entranced by the dance that you do. I’m twisted, so twisted. I wanna twist and turn with you." Closing out the album we have another Melua original...the title track. "The House" is a beautiful ballad that not only showcases Melua's range, but also her musical chemistry with Orbit.
In watching Melua perform her new material live, I'm loving how much fun she appears to be having with the material. Dancing, gyrating, moving about on stage - William Orbit's liquid and flowing production seems to have freed Melua from the microphone-clutching stance that has gripped her since the beginning of her career. All Music calls The House "Melua's most mature album to date," and I'm inclined to agree. This is not to say that past efforts have been amateur, in fact that's far from the truth. Melua has taken a lot of chances here and really stepped out of her comfort zone. While Mike Batt is still very present on the album, without William Orbit this likely would have been a completely different album.
As far outside Melua's comfort zone as The House may be, at the core it's still a Katie Melua record. The House has Melua's signature vocal style. It has her impassioned and poetic songwriting. It's just got a little something extra and that something extra is William Orbit. The House may very well be her best album since her debut.
The House is out in the U.S. on Tuesday, August 3rd on Dramatico/Universal Records.