Sharps and Flats: Mary Lou Lord

By Joe Heim
Published February 4, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)
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Whether she's busking for change in London and Boston subway stations or recording folk-rock songs for the highly regarded indie label Kill Rock Stars, 33-year-old singer-songwriter Mary Lou Lord has always stood out as somewhat of an anomaly. In the subway stations, cops often gave her the boot, and the snottier-than-thou early '90s underground scene had little patience for a girl playing acoustic guitar -- particularly one who hailed '60s and '70s folkies as songwriting heroes.

Rather than fall back in the face of rejection, Lord seemed to thrive on it. Soon she was busking anywhere she damn well pleased, and on her 1995 Kill Rock Stars EP, she pulled the rug out from under the smuggest indie insiders with her deliciously wry song "His Indie World." Lines like "Just give me my Joni, my Nick, Neil and Bob/You can keep your Tsunami, your Slant 6 and Smog" made it clear that it was rock's elder statesmen, not indie upstarts, who she looked to for inspiration.

While it's hard to find fault with Lord's role models, her tendency to rely too heavily on other songwriters often overshadows her own work. It's the only serious flaw of "Got No Shadow," her otherwise excellent major label debut on the Sony WORK label. Out of 13 songs on the CD, only four are written exclusively by Lord, and she shares credits with Nick Saloman, her longtime friend and member of the British psychedelic pop band the Bevis Frond, on just three others. In fact, on her past three releases, including "Got No Shadow," Lord has written or co-written only 11 of the 25 songs.

While Lord has made her mini-career out of capturing songs by other artists and wrapping them up in her quirky personality, one would have hoped her first full-length album would be a showcase for more of her own material. Of the songs she does contribute, the lovelorn and lonely "Western Union Desperate" is, from its opening lines ("I felt a little uneasy on easy street/out of place and incomplete, call it guilt, call it what you will"), a quintessential Lord composition. Her uniquely sweet grittiness emerges on her other songs as well, including "Seven Sisters," "Throng of Blowtown" and the harder rocking "Some Jingle Jangle Morning."

Not that she doesn't cover some excellent songs: "Shake Sugaree," by folk singer Elizabeth Cotten, is one of the highlights, and Lord's heart-on-the-sleeve voice is a perfect match for Freedy Johnston's down-and-out "Lucky One." The numerous harder rocking songs co-written by Saloman are also well-geared to her aching, wafer-thin delivery, and she is as convincing on the poppier "Lights Are Changing" as she is on "Down Along the Lea," a straightforward folk tune.

For those not yet familiar with Lord, "Got No Shadow" works quite well as an introduction, but longtime fans want more, not less, of her signature writing style. Here's hoping the newfound success of making a major label debut will breed the confidence Lord needs to take chances and rely on more of her own material the next time around.

Joe Heim

Joe Heim is a frequent contributor to Salon. He lives in Washington.


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