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."
Unfortunately, the collaboration suffers from Lord's decision to work with a full band, stripping the songs of any potency they might have had. The resulting batch of songs sounds like a Juliana Hatfield B-sides comp, not the great album that was promised and--in some circles--hoped for. Her breathy soprano has an intimate quality when paired solely with her acoustic guitar, like a girlfriend whispering into your ear. Backed by a standard guitar-bass-drums setup, Lord's voice is revealed to be quite a weak instrument, lost amid the rest of the music.
"Throng of Blowtown," one of the album's best cuts, succeeds where the others fail because the music is essentially pared down to Lord, a softly strummed acoustic guitar, and the pitter-pat of a snare drum. As her melancholic description of the glory days of Studio 54 and fishbowls full of cocaine draws to a close, Lord repeats the chorus of the classic Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell duet "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" over and over, the melody counterbalanced by a spiraling, E-Bow guitar solo provided by Geraldine Fibbers guitarist Nels Cline. The song is a frustrating glimpse of what the entire album could have been, but isn't. It also proves that Lord can write quality songs when she wants to.
"I haven't been doing it [writing] that long, because it took a lot of time and guts for me to start to do it," Lord admits. "I've been listening a lot longer than I've been playing, and I've been writing for even less time than I've been playing, so it's going to take a while for my writing to catch up with how good my ears are. It'll get there, and I'm not going to push it, because when you start to do that, it becomes forced and fake, and I won't do it. That's bullshit."
Sadly, flashes of brilliance like "Blowtown" are rare on Shadow. Lord's cover of "Shake Sugaree," a lost gem by '60s folkie Elizabeth Cotten, is one of the only other standout cuts on the album. Backed by the acoustic guitar of former tourmate Elliott Smith, the song harkens back to her early days busking for money to pay the gas bill down in the tube stations of London. Lord's fragile voice perfectly matches Cotten's down-on-my-luck lyrics, and the economical arrangement lends an intimacy that the rest of the record lacks.
In retrospect, Lord would have been better served staying with Kill Rock Stars. The label's lack of finance would have forced her into a more stripped-down affair that better suits her voice and songs. It probably is pretty swell to be in the position to have ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn supply his unmistakable ringing guitar on your album ("Lights Are Changing"), but in this case it really isn't necessary. Shadow gets bogged down in her tendency to want to do too much, instead of leaving well enough alone. Apparently, Lord and company neglected to remember that the delicate nature of her previous work was a big part of its charm.
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Got No Shadow will most likely do quite well in terms of sales and radio airplay, but--for the sake of Lord's creativity--perhaps it would be better if it didn't. Either way, she could care less. As pleased as she is with the record ("I know that I'll look back in five years and I'm not going to be embarrassed about what the fuck I did on it"), you get the feeling that Lord knows that she is--and most likely, always will be--the scrappy street musician hustling change on Boston's Red Line. To listen to her talk, it seems that she would almost prefer a return to her busking days.
"This record, what I'm doing now, I realize that 99 percent of it is bullshit," she admits. "I don't know whether I'm coming or going when it comes to the press and the media and the labels and the radio stations, but when I go in the subways and I'm one-on-one, and there's a woman down there, or a man--or say it's a nun, a 45-year-old nun who has absolutely no clue that I'm on the WORK Group--and they say, 'You really made my day'; that is my absolute reality, and it grounds me.
"If somebody likes the album, that's great, but those one-on-one, immediate gratification situations, I can look in their eyes and know that I'm all right. I can see the song being listened to. I'm experiencing the song--whether it's mine or somebody else's--with these other people. Maybe there's just five or two of them, but we're all in that same moment together."
Mary Lou Lord plays the Galaxy Club on Wednesday, March 11.