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Our Sweet Mary Lou

[whitespace] Mary Lou Lord
Back Off, Courtney: Mary Lou Lord's song about her days with Kurt Cobain, 'Some Jingle Jangle Morning,' provoked a hissy fit from Hole's lead singer.

Alice Wheeler

Lost loves and found fandom fuel Mary Lou Lord's 'Got No Shadow'

By Gina Arnold

MARY LOU LORD has always snuggled deep down in the bosom of the indie-rock world, busking for change on the streets of Boston and recording for the militantly independent Kill Rock Stars Records. In a musical marketplace that abounds with dumb but gorgeous pop divas, her quirky and unglamorous presence is a very welcome relief.

Got No Shadow (Sony/WORK) is Lord's long-awaited major-label debut album (her other recordings were cassettes and EPs), and the timing could not be better. Her wispy folky voice and gentle little tunes would have been burned to a crisp at the height of grunge, but in a world that worships Jewel and Fiona Apple, Lord shines like a beacon of artistic integrity.

Unlike so many artists today, Lord has a past that informs her songwriting, as well as a backlog of musical knowledge on which to draw. Her forte is songs about lost love and loserdom, which she folds gently into sweet and jangly folk-rock tunes. Her real strength, however, lies in her renditions of other people's work. She's an indie-rock Linda Ronstadt, only with better taste. In the past, she's covered songs ranging from Daniel Johnston's "Speeding Motorcycle" to Elizabeth Cotten's R&B classic "Shake Sugaree." Got No Shadow also contains a cover of Freedy Johnston's "The Lucky One."

Lord's version of "Shake Sugaree" (which appears on the new album) is one of the few examples to be heard today of a white woman singing the blues who doesn't sound completely false. The reason, of course, has to do with authenticity. Lord, who spent years playing in subways and living the low-budget life of a committed punk rocker, has a background that's both cooler and more colorful than most of today's ambitious girl rockers. Indeed, although this is her first album, she has been a well-known presence in the underground music scene ever since she turned an alleged affair with Kurt Cobain into a much-vaunted song on a self-made cassette.

That song--"Some Jingle Jangle Morning"--has since been covered by many other acts (notably by Mac McCaughan of Superchunk), and it also turned into a one-sided hellcat fight with Cobain's wife, Courtney Love. But Love would have done better to leave well enough alone. Except in her songs ("She's Got You" may or may not be another thinly veiled version of the Cobain incident), Lord's always kept a dignified silence on the subject (which took place long before Love and Cobain were married).

And judging by the star-studded lineup on her new album--guest appearances by Shawn Colvin, Roger McGuinn, Money Mark (of the Beastie Boys band) and Elliott Smith, formerly of the Portland band Heatmiser--she has more than enough rock-star friends of her own to defend her from Love's ire.

Love and Lord actually have extremely dissimilar styles. Where Love is abrasive and angry, Lord is sweet, gentle and somewhat doormat-ish. In some ways, Lord is the most conventional-sounding girl singer on the market, but like Love, she has always thrived on a kind of insular self-referentiality and fandom.

On her self-named EP, in the song "His Indie World," she went so far as to drop the name of every cool indie-rock band on the planet in rhyme, only to declare in her soft folky voice, "Just give me my Joni, my Nick, Neil and Bob, you can keep your Tsunami, your Slant 6 and Smog."

As that song indicates, Lord takes fandom to new heights of worship: she is a committed listener whose deep appreciation of her musical heroes has been quietly translated into her own songs. Indeed, Lord is almost a better listener than she is a singer. Everything she writes has an echo of earlier music, from "His Latest Flame" (which recalls the Elvis Presley number "[Marie's the Name of] His Latest Flame)" and "She's Got You" (which recalls the Patsy Cline song of the same name).

INDEED, LORD'S whole ethos is suffused with the kind of musical knowledge generally associated with geeky rock critics. Take this line from "Throng of Blowtown": "Bring out the jester and shoot out the lights / Rattle your diamonds and pearls." If that were a question on Jeopardy, contestants would be asked to name references to Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Richard Thompson and Prince, which the song covers in one fell swoop.

That's a fairly typical feat for Lord, because, as she herself says (on "His Indie World"), she has long been "stuck in the past" and star-struck by the present--particularly by the early '90s panorama of the do-it-yourself underground.

One thing that Love and Lord have in common is that, were they to be removed from the context of the early '90s milieu, both artists might suffer from the triviality of their musicianship. Sadly, Lord's collaborations with the Bevis Frond's Nicholas Saloman are better than her own simplistic solo songwriting, which tends to lack chord changes.

Lord also has a cruel fascination with both drugs and the faux glamour of "on the road"-style traveling, and occasionally resorts to rather sophomoric sentiments like "I'm Western Union desperate in a pay phone in the rain / and it's so insane I'm Rimbaud and you're Verlaine."

This type of posturing never quite rings true, but Lord gets away with it better than most, because her personal style is so strongly defined: it's delicate, precise and emotionally truthful. In the end, Got No Shadow succeeds famously because it is a pretty, tuneful record with a strong, single and all-too-universal theme: unrequited love. It is a record that crosses many boundaries--rock, pop, folk, blues, country and alternative--and as such, it deserves respect.

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From the February 5-11, 1998 issue of Metro.

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