Leyla McCalla Sun Without The Heat Review: Cellist offers songs of hope and transformation

Obama-approved musician crafts uplifting messages of faith on fifth album

Leyla McCalla

by Stevie Chick |
Published on

Lelyla McCalla

Sun Without The Heat



LEYLA McCALLA’S previous album, the Obama-approved Breaking The Thermometer, was a song cycle about Radio Haiti-Inter and how the station’s journalists chronicled the suffering of the country’s marginalised people in the face of political instability, corruption and bloodshed. It’s testament to her inventiveness, her deftness, that such weighty material translated to so uplifting a listening experience.

The Haitian-American cellist/singer/songwriter pulls off a similarly impressive feat on this follow-up, inspired by Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons From Marine Mammals, a text by academic Alexis Pauline Gumbs that explores the historic mistreatment of sea life as a metaphor for society’s abuse of oppressed people. Again, heavy stuff. But McCalla once more works her alchemical magic, her Caribbean-rooted folksong engaging with the overriding message of Gumbs’ work: that change is always possible.

So there are songs here to soothe, to reassure. Her honeyed vocal is often in comfort mode, as on Give Yourself A Break, where she strings her words of compassion across simple ukulele strum and Pete Olynciw’s contemplative bass. On the keening, closing track I Want To Believe, her tentative optimism is cushioned by reverb-heavy piano chords and a melody retracing Desperado’s steps, the warmth of the familiar offering strength.

But these aren’t simply lullabies to pacify. Scaled To Survive is a rumination on the bond between parent and child and the importance of joy, McCalla directly quoting Gumbs’ text when she sings, “Thank you for laughing me into this portal”, over upbeat guitar chimes, an undertow of cello and the chirping of birds. On lines like “What you learned drowning taught me how to breathe” and “How do you let yourself feel all the pain?”, she’s also keenly aware of her parents’ sacrifices as first-generation immigrants, pushing the song into a darker space.

McCalla and her musicians pursue this tension throughout. On Tree, a woman metamorphoses into a sapling for want of love, while another throws herself into the ocean, searching for escape. As if to mirror these turbulent journeys, the song’s shimmering acid-folk itself shifts into intense psychedelic freak-out, Nahum Zdybel’s volcanic fuzz guitar and Shawn Myers’ brittle snare as abrasive as some sublime Zamrock jam. Take Me Away’s yearning for transfiguration – its earnest plea of “Make me unafraid, make me brave” – is soundtracked by guitars that sound like thumb pianos, set to charged, Fela-worthy Afrobeat shuffle.

These are songs of hope and transformation. But as on the title track, dedicated to former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Mc-Calla knows you can’t have that hope without fear, and she never ignores that the act of transformation can itself be traumatic. This edge, this acknowledgment of the stakes at play behind her messages of faith, pushes these songs past any risk of empty sentimentalism, and makes Sun Without The Heat truly uplifting.

Sun Without The Heat Is out now on Anti-.

Listen to/Buy: Spotify | Apple | Amazon | Rough Trade | HMV

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