Down in the tube station

Mary Lou Lord nears the end of her 15 minutes

Mary Lou Lord's story almost sounds like the plot of a Dickens novel, or at least the bastardized Hollywood version of a Dickens novel: a scrappy, waif-like street musician plucked out of near-obscurity and--after dogged pursuit by countless labels--is signed to a major recording contract. At the very least, her story would make a fine subject for one of those sappy Behind the Music documentaries that VH-1 cranks out with machine-like regularity. You can nearly see it now--fuzzy still photos of Lord singing for nickels and dimes on a Boston subway platform fill the screen, while Kris Kristofferson or Gary Busey or some other celebrity wash-out solemnly narrates the tale of her rise, both metaphorically and physically, from the oily depths of the tunnels of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

The narrator follows Lord as her demo tape falls into the hands of influential post-punk label Kill Rock Stars Records--home to such bands as Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney--leading to the release of a handful of singles and a few compilation appearances. Her blend of out-of-the-way covers and witty originals--like "His Indie World," which name-checks just about every underground band in America--melts the hearts of hardcore punks and jaded kids in Pavement T-shirts everywhere and makes her the target of a multi-label bidding war. The tale ends with her signing to The WORK Group (a subsidiary of Sony), and the credits roll.

The story sounds too perfect, the kind of thing publicity firms are known to invent. Everything about Lord, in fact, seems a little too perfect, a bit too contrived. She has the right history (erstwhile busker and permanent resident of Courtney Love's shit list after allegedly giving the late Kurt Cobain a hummer in the back of a tour bus), the right friends (Bevis Frond frontman Nick Saloman, Kill Rock Stars owner Slim Moon, and the Beastie Boys' organ grinder Money Mark), and the right blond-haired, dimpled-cheek package. In this post-Jewel, post-Lilith Fair universe, Lord has practically been guaranteed success without even having to strum a single guitar chord. You get the impression that Mary Lou Lord is an artist more people have heard about rather than actually heard: a kind of indie-pop equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster. She comes off as the kind of performer who skates by on a few media-savvy stunts and rave notices from critics who probably haven't listened to one of her records all the way through (read: Cornershop).

That being said, Lord is more than just a media concoction, a mere stopgap between Jewel records. But does she live up to the hype that surrounds her? Probably not. Not a singer-songwriter in the strictest of terms (Got No Shadow, her debut full-length for The WORK Group, counts only four solo compositions by Lord among its 13 tracks, and two of those--"Some Jingle Jangle Morning" and "Western Union Desperate"--are re-recorded versions of an early 7-inch), Lord has mainly built her reputation as an interpreter of other people's songs, a sort of singing talent scout. In that role, she has shown that she possesses a keen ear for quality songs, covering obscure nuggets by Guided By Voices, Daniel Johnston, Elliot Smith, and--most frequently--Saloman's Bevis Frond. However, she lacks the chops to liberate the songs from their authors the way Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash used to, prodding and poking the song until it becomes a work distinctly their own.

Calling from her hotel room in San Francisco, Lord displays a salty, just-one-of-the-guys vocabulary and an infectious laugh that makes it hard to dislike her. But, when mention is made of the preponderance of cover songs in her stage set and on her records, you can almost hear her rolling her eyes through the phone.

"The ones who know what the fuck they're talking about are pleased that somebody did a Bevis Frond song, that somebody is bringing attention [Nick Saloman's] way, that somebody gives a shit about that one song that they love, that's so hard to find because it comes from the B-side of a B-side of a single that came out on friggin' Woroznow Records," Lord says.

"If you look at Bob Dylan, if you look at the Beatles or Rolling Stones, they did covers on their first records," she continues. "They adored it. They did Carl Perkins, they did Gene Vincent, Jimmy Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, all those guys. And even those guys did covers. Hank Williams' 'Lovesick Blues?' That wasn't even his song!"

Her best moments usually come when she is playing one of Saloman's tunes. The Peter, Paul and Mary to his Dylan, Lord's sparse readings of Saloman's songs uncover how good a songwriter he actually is, once the layers of psychedelia have been removed. Her acoustic rendering of the Bevis Frond's "He'd Be a Diamond," on her self-titled mini-album for Kill Rock Stars, is one of her most affecting moments yet. After that album's release, the duo became friends and writing partners. On Shadow, Saloman contributed four songs, as well as co-writing three more with Lord.

"I was a fan for a long time, and I thought, 'This guy writes like nobody's tomorrow, and if only he'd detach that 11-minute guitar solo,'" Lord says with a laugh. "I just adore his songs, and it was way too tempting and way too much for me not to work with him or record some of his songs on my record. I had to."

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