Dark, Brilliant Lyrical Tunesmithing from Nehedar

by delarue

What is a tunesmith as catchy and lyrically powerful as Nehedar a.k.a. Emilia Cataldo doing so far under the radar? In a world where people who liked smart songwriting still listened to the radio, she would rule the airwaves. At heart, she’s a purist pop songwriter with a thing for oldschool soul, and a punk rock edge that sometimes defiantly raises its spiky head. Elsewhere, bits and pieces of so-called urban radio styles – hip-hop, trip-hop and neosoul – filter through the mix. Her lyrics draw biting, savage portraits of clinical depression littered with dashed hopes and dead dreams. And not only is she a brilliant songwriter, she’s also a great singer, with a big range that tops out way up the scale, and plenty of attention to lyrical detail. Lots of women with good voices sing everything the same way: Nehedar (Hebrew for “wondrous”) varies her approach depending on the lyrics. All of her albums are streaming at her Bandcamp page.

The one you ought to download right now is the freebee, Power Plant Beach, from a couple of years ago. The album cover graphic says a lot about the songwriting: in gentle pastels, a pink, sandy beach sits with a nuclear plant in the background. Kinda Simpsons, sure, but in a post-3/11 world there’s nothing more worrisome. Growling guitar and a tricky tempo fuel the opening track, They Lied, introducing a recurrent theme in her work. It’s the great powerpop hit Blondie never had. The stream-of-consciousness, neosoul-tinged Make the Sun Come Up is a lot more optimistic: “I wanna write the songs that make the sun come up,” she announces. Pretty Young Thing, a trip-hop tune, has the feel of a demo, or a one-woman band piece: it’s a cautionary tale about strangers with evil intent.

The political edge kicks in hard, Cataldo’s voice leaping and diving over a mix of burning powerpop and hip-hop on Debtor’s Lament:

I am not the sum of my belongings
Ad I am not the sum of my degrees
And I am not someone who is falling down to you
On my hands and my knees

Serious despair sets in on Headlights as it rises from an artsy piano ballad to more trip-hop. A little later on, she goes in the opposite direction with what might be her funniest song, My Roommate Is an Assclown: it’s pretty classic, something that will hit the spot with anyone who’s ever shared a private space with someone who doesn’t respect it. Then Cataldo brings back the stormclouds with Running Away, an escape anthem fueled by weird, off-center synth and elegant piano.

Over wickedly catchy major/minor powerpop changes, Let Down pensively explores at a scenario where “pain might be the same as beauty.” Another powerpop number, Sad Clown paints a bitter picture of being down and out in New York. The album’s last song, Metronome ponders a situation where the girl’s spinning her wheels and itching for a change, spiced with smoky organ and a surreal, sunbaked guitar solo.

Her latest album is This Heart. The songs here are a little quieter, bleaker and more defeated, in contrast with Cataldo’s bright, lively vocals and the melodies underneath. The first track, Bells of the City starts out nebulously, like Stereolab, and builds to a nonchalantly soaring, hip-hop-influenced chorus, “Building a nice career out of a life of fear, but the bells of the city call you home,” Cataldo sings without a hint of the menace that line implies. Take This World, a snarling guitar-driven garage rock tune, is one of Cataldo’s best, lyrically and musically:

Take this world from me
The dull monotony
The working endlessly, I’m giving up
Yes, take it all, I don’t care what you say
So fuck off yesterday, let’s burn it all
Everything you ever knew was a lie
Everyone you ever loved’s gonna die
They own the world I was born in, you see
All they want is to rent it to me
The only thing I ever thought was magic
Is the only thing I’ll never get to be…

Weight of Your Bones keeps the theme of alienation going over ba-bump cabaret rock done as new wave. What’s Becoming drolly juxtaposes tongue-in-cheek 80s Ghostbusters pop with an absolutely morose lyric. On Killing, a bolero, is another standout track, a brutally cynical portrait of wartime shellshock and its consequences.

The title track, a pensive folk-rock tune, offers guarded optimism: “This soul is very old, glad to be here, for reasons unclear,” Cataldo muses. Something to Call Mine, a breakup song, works an acoustic Nashville gothic vein. Why Do They Tell Me, a funky, Rhodes piano-driven soul song, brings back the angst:  “Time for the curtain or the door, ’cause nothing is certain anymore,” Cataldo laments. The bouncy, trumpet-spiced I Used to Have Friends is even sadder: “I’ll get them back someday when I’m not so down,” she insists quietly. Then she raises the energy again with the snide acoustic punk song A Dollar’s Fine, making fun of religious nuts: Cataldo is from Florida originally, and it’s easy to imagine her being surrounded by those kind of freaks when she was small.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, an eerie, apocalyptic trip-hop song,  keeps the quasi-religious metaphors going. To Be Small also has a trip-hop beat, a stark violin solo and more gothic imagery. The album ends with Bring It Up, a funky latin soul tune, maintaing the persistent tension between hope and despair that permeates Cataldo’s work. Although she’s not a frequent live performer, she’s very prolific in the studio: get to know her before these darkly catchy, often haunting songs go viral.