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Melanie Penn
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Melanie Penn

Soul-deep shadows

Music | Melanie Penn’s dreamlike second album never loses sight of hope

Issue: "Believing in Iraq," May 17, 2014

“If you think of it,” says Melanie Penn from her apartment in Brooklyn, “send up a prayer for me. It has felt like walking in cement to get this thing out.”

“This thing” is Hope Tonight, the self-described “30-something” singer-songwriter’s soon-to-be-released sophomore album. And although “get[ting] it out” may have felt burdensome, listening to it does not.

Penn’s pleasantly airy pop soprano rides hooks rendered dreamlike by the twin wings of acoustic instrumentation and tasteful electronic touches. And the lyrics, while introspective, never lose sight of hope. “Is it our duty to keep singing?” she sings in “Turnaround,” “whether funeral sighs or hymns, / whether lullabies or battle cries—until the spring? / I think it is.”

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Like Penn’s 2010 debut, Wake Up Love, Hope Tonight was produced by Ben Shive (Andrew Peterson, Bebo Norman). Not surprisingly, the album glistens, echoes, and casts soul-deep shadows in all the right places.

Right places have played a large part in Penn’s life. A cradle Anglican who sang her first public notes at a Christmas Eve service (“‘Once in Royal David’s City,’” she recalls), she left her native Virginia for the Big Apple upon graduating from college with a literature degree in 2000 with dreams of taking Broadway by storm.

“I spent a good eight to nine years in the musical theater scene,” she says. “I did a couple of Broadway national tours. I was climbing up the ladder, doing regional theater. I played Sandy in Grease many times.”

But when what she calls the “urge to make records” took over, she abandoned the footlights and “committed to writing songs.”

One reason that she’d procrastinated is that she hadn’t always had anything special to say.

Then two Muslim-hijacked airplanes hit the twin towers.

“I was living below 14th Street in Manhattan,” she remembers, “and my roommate woke me up. She said, ‘A plane hit the World Trade Center! You’ve gotta wake up!’ We stood on the roof of my apartment building and watched the World Trade Center fall. And I thought, ‘I have to get my life together.’”

For Penn, that meant going to pastor Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church to be precise.

“October 2001 I would say is when I became a Christian. It took four or five Sundays. But I was one of many New Yorkers who went to church after 9/11.”

Nowadays, Penn helps to lead worship at Redeemer and works for its church-planting sister ministry, Redeemer City to City. “The penny dropped for me spiritually at Redeemer,” she says. “It was there that I really understood who Jesus was.”

NOTHING AS DRAMATIC or eternally resonant underlies Lights Out (Cabin 24), the latest album by Ingrid Michaelson. But it deftly mixes the business of coming of age with the pleasures of gently hooky pop and in so doing makes an enjoyable and insightful secular counterpart to Penn’s Hope Tonight

Like Penn, Michaelson is a New York–based singer-songwriter with roots in the stage. Unlike Penn, Michaelson focuses more on the here and now. But both have a place in a well-balanced musical diet. And, in defiance of the contemporary-female-popster norm, Michaelson stays within the parameters of good taste.

An exception is her video to “Girls Chase Boys.” A spoof of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” video, it replaces Palmer’s fashion models with homoerotic male dancers and ends up more nauseating than clever.

The video, however, does not come with the album. And the song itself should prove irresistible to anyone who has ever called a romantic relationship quits.

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