Melissa Engleman – At the Hotel Cafe (2010)

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Photo by Lindsey Verrill,
Melissa Engelman’s MySpace page

by Nick DeRiso

Austin-based singer-songwriter Melissa Engleman explores life with a tough vulnerability on the urban folk set At the Hotel Café, often displaying a fortitude so quiet as to deceive. She gets knocked to the ground, while brilliantly fusing alt-country, singer-songwriter folk and whispers of blues, but notice that she never hints at staying down.

That tenacity is best heard on tracks like the album opener “You Don’t Even Know Me.” With a voice as insistent as her strumming, Engleman repeats the chorus like a mantra, like a plea, then like a sadly accepted truth. She later talks about the struggle to frame old hurts, and to move on, amidst the riveting jangle of “This is a Song.” After rattling off a series of injustices (“the things you did, what you wouldn’t say, what you couldn’t give, what you didn’t have”), Engleman’s character eventually ends up at a devastating conclusion: “You were cruel,” she sings with hushed finality, “and I was a fool.”

Her subject matter is unflinching and evocative, and she approaches each lyric like her life depended on it. This raw devotion is put in high relief by the sparsely presented two-track recording, made in front of an intimate Los Angeles crowd. They sit so quietly that “Lay Down Your Head,” a lullaby that Engleman wrote for her niece, sounds like it was recorded in a high-priced studio.

As Engleman offers a wistful trip into the sweetly innocent night world of child, it’s easy to imagine everyone in front of the bandstand slowly drifting off to sleep. But then the angular passion of “My Heart is Open” begins working in direct contrast, as she makes a call for love as disarming as it is sensual. She carries the lyric up into a softly exhaled, almost luminous moan, only to return to a cyclic guitar signature that suggests the maddeningly slow ticking of a clock.

“Sweetness and Wine” finds Engleman on a friendly ramble through the giddy questions and curiosities that bloom in anticipation of an evening’s date. In the end, she gives herself over to the romantic notion of how things will go. “Will my heart run off all my good sense by morning?” Engleman asks, then dives back into the song’s incessant, almost impatient acoustic riff. “Darling, let’s count down the time in sweetness and wine.”

Her dream-state passion is shaken awake by the angry cinematic imagery of “Shade of Shame,” as Engleman’s character comes upon a lover who once wronged her. Wounded all over again, she latches onto the smallest, more particular items, trying to steady herself once more. “The crack in the window is new,” she sings. “And I don’t recognize that break in your voice, and I don’t recall that scar above your eye.” He wants to go outside for a cigarette. She wants to try to talk about things. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. “Shade of Shame” comes crashing down then, as they reach this impasse. “It’s been so long,” Engleman concludes, and the song vanishes.

Finally, there’s “Sailing” which provides the perfect sendoff. “I’m braving your rocky shores; I’m walking the coast line until my feet are cut,” Engleman sings, with a reborn hope. “And I won’t turn back. I’d rather break than be safe and missing you tonight.” This is the underlying emotion that holds At the Hotel Café together.

Like much of Engleman’s gently assertive new release, it’s not simply a fond memory, and doesn’t take too much time for regret. It’s a resolute commitment to keep fighting, to keep loving, to keep feeling.

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