Impeccable songcraft trumps all
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 7, 2003) -- Singer-songwriter Mary Lou Lord made things a lot easier for listeners and critics alike on Sunday night at Club Helsinki when about halfway through her show, utilizing a very common and colorful phrase to denigrate her skills, she acknowledged her extreme limitations as a musician and singer.
Having done so with offhanded and slightly offbeat grace, Lord charmed the audience. What was left for them was to marvel at her terrific skills as a lyricist and songwriter. When one could find the lyrics buried beneath her strained, breathy vocals, terrific phrases, strong images and felicitous rhymes jumped out, couplets like, “As she climbs the ladder of success/She doesn’t care if all the boys look up her dress.”
At her best, the Boston-based artist -- who once had a major-label deal with Sony Music before returning to her day job as a subway busker -- reminded one of Elvis Costello, with whom she shares an affinity for witty wordplay tied to deft melodicism and an uncanny ear for great songcraft hidden in the work of others, which she revealed in her choice of cover tunes, playing utterly transformed versions of songs by the Clash, Richard Thompson, Shawn Colvin, the Pogues, AC/DC and Bruce Springsteen, and making them her own.
Her own songs, like “Western Union Desperate,” with its Bob Dylan by way of Steve Forbert heartland narrative and its invocation of Verlaine, Rimbaud and Jack Kerouac, and “Some Jingle Jangle Morning,” with its classic-pop by way of the Eagles melody and its portrayal of American rootlessness, sat comfortably beside the rest.
But as Lord so willingly acknowledged, she really isn’t up to the task of performing her own chestnuts. Her voice is a thin, delicate, scratchy wisp of sound seemingly unable to produce a note of clarity. And her utterly functional, rhythmic playing on acoustic guitar trips her up when the rhythms skip like an old needle bouncing across a record.
If it weren’t for her gifts as a songwriter and her winning, self-effacing personality, Lord would have never made it out of the subway, much less to a major label. But for better or worse, these days there is a premium placed on the illusion of authenticity garnered by a songwriter performing her own material. And while it would be terrific to hear some of Lord’s songs performed by genuine singers and talented musical ensembles, for a quiet hour on a Sunday night, it was just fine listening to a genius writer struggling through her own material on sheer inspiration.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 8, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]