JANUARY 2000 | VOL. 4, NO. 1
MARY LOU LORD, QUEEN OF THE COVER SONGS
If her set list sounds a bit like a tribute concert set on "shuffle," that's because it is. Lord is something of a Folk/Indie Reader: a walking, vocalizing digest of song. Her goal, it seems, is to be the Pete Seeger of the 21st century, collecting and cataloging what she considers to be the best in both modern and traditional music. Of the 14 pieces she performs at the Tune-in, at least eight are covers, including, among others, Lois's "Hey Antoinette," which she prefaces by stating "This next song could have been written about my sister. She had big, big hair, and she reminds me a lot of Peg Bundy." Lord likes to discuss her personal connections to other peoples' work in a way that is simultaneously touching and confounding. Her set plays a bit like an MTV Unplugged, where an established artist might stray from her own back log to cue a few personal influences. But Lord is not a rock star, at least not yet. As such, she is perhaps singular among young recording artists in her unwillingness to leave the nest and make the leap to an "all-me" lineup.
Is it fear that keeps her song writing in check, or is it simply an oversized case of the gratefuls? Lord's newest album, Got No Shadow, marks a departure from her earlier, cover-based recordings in that it is a unified collection of songs written mainly by Lord herself or by Lord and Nick Saloman (The Bevis Frond). Nevertheless, in her liner notes she waxes effusive with gratitude to musical influences ranging from Kevin Salem to Alan Lomax. Her indebtedness to others takes a whopping 645 words; perhaps rightfully so, given the breadth of her musical send-ups. Between her first two Kill Rock Stars records alone, the eponymous Mary Lou Lord and Martian Saints (EP), she performs nine borrowed songs, including, among others, the aforementioned Daniel Johnston track, Peter Laughner's "Cinderella Backstreet" and Pete Droge's "Sunspot Stopwatch." Even on Got No Shadow, Lord lends her prettified sugar-coating to someone else's laments -- on Freedy Johnston's "The Lucky One" and Elizabeth Cotten's "Shake Sugaree." So the real question is, why does Lord insist on pretty imitations when her own creations, such as "Some Jingle Jangle Morning," are pure pop gold? In her lovely ballad "Subway," a busking Lord utters a desperate plea to her transient listeners: "I'll be Jimmy Rodgers, The Cure or the Who, if it makes any difference to you/Does it make any difference to you?" The question is, does it make any difference to her audience?
Apparently not. On this particular evening, the crowd's response to both covers and originals is equally warm. Lord's own "Western Union Desperate" (enhanced by bits of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven") is a well-received opener, despite a monitor problem that eats a ten-minute chunk out of the show (causing Lord to commiserate with the engineer: "These damned acoustic musicians and all their stuff!"). The stage equivalent of a sonic boom blasts from the amp, knocking the first row of patrons flat on their backs and eliciting a "Holy shit!" from the singer. The audience breaks up into shocked laughter as she delivers her comeback: "I was beginning to think they were falling asleep, so I did something to wake them up."
Fast on the tail of this disaster comes a request for Matt Keating's "That Kind of Girl," followed by another Lord original -- the recycled version of her mid-nineties single, "His Indie World." Lord re-worked her lyrics, replacing lo-fi indie groups with "Americana bands." The clever result is "His N.D. World," a.k.a. "His No Depression World," which references "N.D." bands such as Uncle Tupelo, Golden Smog, and Blue Mountain in place of indie punk and pop like Bikini Kill, Rocketship and Tsunami. Though the "world" changes, the yearning remains: "And I'm stuck in the past and he's stuck in his four track/and I can't get through to his one-track mind/I push play and record and play an augmented chord/maybe I'll win his heart this time."
In a similarly wistful vein is the standout number of the evening -- Lord's "country song," entitled "Aim Low." "I gave this one my best Dixie Chicks approach," Lord says. "It's dedicated to all the non-upwardly mobile people in the audience." What follows is by far the strongest piece in her set, a twangy, neo-slacker paean to diminished ambitions: "I never asked you if you'd like to go dancing/It saved hearing that you might decline/I never told you that I wanted to be with you/I aimed low when you walked on by." Lyrically, "Aim Low" is a solid example of sustained metaphor; musically, it's a mid-tempo, poor-sucker love song on par with some of the best (Hank Williams and Johnny Cash come to mind).
With last-call rapidly approaching, an energized Lord rounds out her hour-plus with another track, "Lights Are Changing," off her latest album, followed by a breathy "Happy Birthday" to a faceless Jeff among the audience members. At ten minutes before one, she stops taking requests. Instead, she announces her last song, saying, "This is one I haven't played in a long time." She begins a faithful, solemn rendition of Dylan's "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go." The room is so silent with delicate melancholy that the click of the central heating system feels like a rude intrusion. In this extended moment, Lord weaves a skilled intimacy between herself and the song that dispels any doubts about her motives in choosing to do covers. She is indeed serious about bringing sensitive and careful adaptations to her audience, and though she has often prefaced songs with an enthused and slangy chatter, in the treatment of the music herself, she remains as straight-faced in her reverence as a Vatican tour guide. Lord-doing-Dylan is a particularly austere treat, where the performer takes a back seat to the story, serving the time-honored tradition of folk-singing in the best way she knows how: to disappear completely into the words.
And sure enough, when she does go, she makes the audience lonesome -- and hopeful, too, for the speedy release of her new CD, be it a Folkways installment or an all-Lord extravaganza.
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KRISTEN HAVENS, a freelance writer and poet, is a contributor to Renaissance Magazine.
PICTURES copyright © 2000 Epic Records.