There are those moments where, metaphorically speaking, off in the distance, at the edge of darkness, there is a flickering flame. That light is hope. For the members of the cinematic alt-rock group Magnolia Memoir, the band has been that beacon of hope and healing, helping its members and fans process death, catastrophe, and painfully complex childhoods.
Through humor, theatricality, astounding virtuosity, boundlessly expressive singing, and stunning songwriting, Magnolia Memoir has crafted a body of work that is cathartic and redemptive. But its latest opus, Pale Fire – out September 16th - is its most glorious guiding light. It’s third studio album is a breakthrough conceptually and musically—the most vibrant representation of the band’s artistic ideals.
“This album is the spark that pierces through the darkness. It’s that glimmer of hope that ignites revolutions, helps you move forward when you’re grieving and fighting through,” says vocalist Mela Lee.
And the project almost didn’t happen. The release date for Pale Fire was pushed back several months as Mela had a pale fire moment of her own after being hit by car that ran a red light, fracturing several vertebrae. She was inches away from being killed and had to fight her way back to walking again. The other band members consisting of Alexander Burke on keys, Aron Forbes on guitar and Gordon Bash on Bass all rallied around her. “We’re like a family,” says Alex. “We all had to fight through this one together.”
The critically acclaimed band has garnered accolades from numerous music biz tastemakers, and entertainers, including Will Forte, Andrae Crouch, Ryan Gosling, and Margaret Cho. Magnolia Memoir is often favorably compared to such diverse artists as Spoon, The Black Keys, The White Stripes, Wilco, Glen Hansard (Swell Season, The Frames), Etta James, Annie Lennox and Eurythmics, Florence +the Machine, and Sam Smith. Critics seeking to capture the band’s vibe have described the Memoir as, “Adele meets The Black Keys” and “…Fiona Apple meets the Killers with a dash of The Clash.” Mela’s astounding five-octave vocal range has been described as a unique mix of classic elegance and modern sass, evoking the silken stylings of Etta James and Billie Holiday, the pop-rock swagger of Gwen Stefani, and the sultry soulfulness of Adele.
It’s an eclectic “sounds similar to” list due to the group’s prodigious musicianship, artistic boldness, and imaginative arrangements. In an album, or often in the space of one song, the band can conjure up delicate film noir music, vaudevillian jazz, soaring alt-rock, torch ballads, and ambient modern rock. It’s a testament to the talents of the group’s members who are all seasoned composers and session musicians.
Live, Magnolia Memoir evokes a classic era of entertainers when the presentation of music was majestic, playfully irreverent, and emotionally authentic. “For the audience, our live show is a theatrical experience that is also cathartic. We’re like the unexpected party at the wake,” Mela says. It’s no wonder Hollywood celebrities like Will Forte, Ione Skye, Doris Roberts, Fred Willard, and Lost’s Jorge Garcia agreed to be in the band’s video for its Pale Fire leadoff single “Odds & Ends” which currently has amassed over 34,000 views.
At the creative core of the group are Mela Lee and Alexander Burke (piano, vibes and organ.). The two have a telepathic collaborative spirit. On Pale Fire they have found a way to harness her five octave vocal range, lyric and melodic sensibility; his genius as a composer (Alexander is a music score writer for HBO, Comedy Central, Lorne Michael’s Broadway Video online division, FX, Fox, and NBC/Universal); the full expressive possibilities of the studio; and fully realize the sympathetic and accomplished musicality of their band.
Pale Fire represents an emotional and artistic continuum for Magnolia Memoir. Like its two predecessors, it’s a concept record and it grapples with some profoundly emotional concepts of identity. Vocalist Mela Lee lost her father when she was two years old. Later on, when she lost her day job, she embarked on a transformative trip to discover more about her father. She sought out his side of the family and his close friends, and jotted down the stories from these encounters in a journal that she bought at a shop on the side of the road in Mississippi. The journal had magnolias on it, and that image and those musings became the genesis of the artistic and spiritual adventure of The Magnolia Memoir.
Aside from the overarching Magnolia Memoir themes, Pale Fire also functions as a standalone concept piece based on the story of a pale fire revolution that begins with the haunting and exquisitely dramatic opener “Ash & Bone,” and concludes with the sweepingly uplifting pop rock of “Resurrected.” Between these two dynamic bookends, the band explores jaunty piano pop-rock (“Odds & Ends”), mesmerizing almost operatic vocalizing within elegantly sparse balladeering (“No One Like You”), and opulent modern rock of the title track (“Pale Fire”).
Conceptually, Pale Fire is also a loose reference to the prolific Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s literary work of the same name. As a concept album song-by-song, every track stands on its own, but, if you are a Nabokov fan, you will find a different meaning, as every song on the album has a nod to the book. But, in addition to the intriguing symmetry between the two works, and how captivating the Pale Fire concept independent of Nabakov references, what makes this a breakthrough album is how the group has used the studio as a canvas to create its most compelling work to date.
Mela’s own pale fire story of surviving a horrific car crash and relearning how to walk makes the release of the album that more poignant. “My recovery has been nothing short of miraculous,” she says. “This project, this band, and this life are worth fighting for. Without them- I'd be twelve deep in a Percocet haze feeling sorry for myself. That just wasn't an option.” That spirit is the Pale Fire.