Album: Vari-Colored Songs
Artist: Leyla McCalla
Details: 14 songs; 41minutes
Who’s Choice: Deliberate Obfuscation
As Leyla McCalla sings the words of Langston Hughes out emerges gospel, torch songs, spiritual, novelty, porch blues, folk. They are her interpretations of the poet’s words and, as the listener, you get it.
Vari-Colored Songs, the first solo album from Leyla McCalla is quiet, spare, loveliness. Many of the fourteen songs on the album, reflect the words of the poet, but others her original songs sung in Haitian Creole.
After spending so many of the last weeks listening to albums where I often struggle to hear what lyrics are, this one is as clear as if it was a spoken word recording. In fact, the line between this and a spoken word album is blurry. Lonely House, which is actually sung to a tune that was previously written as part of an opera that Langston Hughes collaborated on, is performed a capella for the first third of it. Then, there is merely strummed banjo and boppy bass plucks.
Even though her roots are as a musician – mainly cello – the style of this album does not focus upon the dexterity of her musicianship. She uses many different versions of stringed instruments in a manner that leaves the message of the lyrics to the forefront. Even so, however, the music is not unnoticeable. It is kind of a conundrum, as I really tried to consider it.
Leyla notes in interviews and on her Kickstarter page (that produced the funding that led to this album being made) that the poetry of Langston Hughes led her to become an artist. Listening to Hughes’ words and knowing a little about his own presence in music, you can understand why the type of artist she would become would be a musician. Hughes words are musical, and what she does with his rhythms is fascinating.
Leyla does not just sing-read. She does interesting things that fit the poem into the meaning that she takes from it. Take the poem, Too Blue:
I got those sad old weary blues.
I don’t know where to turn.
I don’t know where to go.
Nobody cares about you
When you sink so low.
What shall I do?
What shall I say?
Shall I take a gun
And put myself away?
I wonder if
One bullet would do?
As hard as my head is,
It would probably take two.
But I ain’t got
Neither bullet nor gun –
And I’m too blue
To look for one.
Rather than the gloom of the blues, she transforms this poem into something almost humorous. That is something about poems that I like. Out of a few words, different readers can find so many different things. I wonder if the way she presents each of these songs is how she has always heard those poems, or if she fit them to different styles that she wanted to use? I tend to think the former, but I also think that she could do the latter.
This choice was a lark. I knew little about it and had not listened to a note of it. Leyla McCalla became known to me this week and I am pleased to make that acquaintance. Even Dan, over at Gone Mild fell for the charms of this album and what Leyla has delivered. He also sweetly affirms that our partnership in all things typically is for the better (unless it involves Damien Jurado 🙂 )
Next Up: Stockholm by Chrissie Hynde