As difficult as it was for a time to hear over the din of Mary Lou Lord’s notoriety as the cherubic face on Courtney Love’s dartboard (thanks to a brief but subsequently well-publicized pre-Love love affair with Kurt Cobain), the Boston busker renders the infamy irrelevant on her self-titled Kill Rock Stars mini-album, an affecting acoustic gem that is alternately sad, funny, malicious and tender.
The streetcorner singer’s prior releases had been Real — a cassette-only set of songs by Nirvana, Dylan, Billy Bragg, Big Star, Led Zeppelin, John Cale and others — and a startling three-song KRS 7-inch containing two marvelous originals: “Some Jingle Jangle Morning (When I’m Straight)” and “Western Union Desperate,” the latter presented both as sludgy grunge and winsome solo folk. (Although Donna Dresch of Team Dresch is a guest here, Lord had already established her indie rock bona fides by co-founding the band that became Helium).
But Mary Lou Lord shoots light-years ahead of both the cassette and the 45. Using a whispery soprano that can only paraphrase the harsher emotions in the lyrics and a guitar captured in all her rhythmic imperfection, Lord mixes and matches an exquisite selection of songs from Bevis Frond auteur Nick Saloman (including “Lights Are Changing,” the only one of the eight to be rocked up, complete with Juliana Hatfield on backing vox), Daniel Johnston (“Speeding Motorcycle”) and Matt Keating (whose “That Kind of Girl,” with its vindictive lyrics about “smashing pumpkins,” is supposedly not about the Hole star). But it’s Lord’s three compositions that make the sharpest impression here: the wistful absence-makes-the-heart-uncomfortable “Helsinki,” the smartly comical Tom Lehrer-like band iteration of “His Indie World” (“What’s the story? He says ‘Butterglory’ / I say ‘What’s the news?’ He says, ‘the Silver Jews'” and so forth) and “The Bridge,” a searing, poignant entreaty presumably directed at Kurt Cobain. By making her words suit the intimacy of her voice (or the other way around), Mary Lou Lord tears deep into the soft pulp of the universal heart.
The five-song Martian Saints! executes the same idea with more musicians and ambition, if not success. Lord’s singing on material by Nick Saloman (the theremin-enriched title song), Elliott Smith (who also produced “I Figured You Out,” the most affecting item here), Peter Laughner (“Cinderella Backstreet”), Pete Droge and the lady herself is more confident and pitch-pure, but a layer of something audibly covers a bit of her vulnerability and her winsomeness. Despite substantial charm, it suffers by comparison to Mary Lou Lord.
A move into major label clutches didn’t make her a star, but it did produce one tremendous album that frames her singing and creative personality with skill and sensitivity. Work (a Sony imprint) wisely let Lord work on Got No Shadow with her friends, so Saloman and Smith are all over the record, which contains understandable (but unimproved) remakes of “Lights Are Changing” and “Some Jingle Jangle Morning” as well as Saloman’s devastating “She Had You,” a painfully rueful swath of jealousy that again sounds custom-written for Lord’s lost love, and “His Lamest Flame,” a Lord/Saloman collaboration that turns Elvis Presley inside out to much the same effect. Belied by the disc’s acoustic streetside cover photos, the full-bodied production by Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf never overwhelms Lord’s little voice, wisely leaving her the star of her own show. The Pace of Change, a promotional EP distributed with the album, featured Lord in her stripped-down busking mode: heartfelt versions of Billy Bragg’s “Ontario, Quebec, and Me,” Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and less noteworthy Bevis Frond and Jimmy Bruno tunes.
Lord’s dalliance with the bigtime record industry ended, and she went back to her musical roots, singing for her supper in the Boston subway system. She rejoined her old colleagues at Kill Rock Stars for a split EP with Sean Na Na (alter-ego of Sean Tillmann, formerly of Calvin Krime and later known as Har Mar Superstar). The EP is all over the place stylistically, with Lord’s three songs ranging from Lucinda Williams’ country lament “Hard Roads” to the vintage rockabilly rave-up “Bang Bang,” performed with her husband Kevin Patey’s band, the Raging Teens. But the highlight is another Saloman composition, “Aim Low,” a ringing Byrdsy call for lowering one’s expectation. Even if one disagrees with the sentiment, the melody can’t be denied.
The live City Sounds, initially self-released and sold by mail, is a caught-in-the-act subway production: just Lord, her acoustic guitar plugged into an amp, a DAT recorder and, occasionally, an audience. Set-wise, she augments previous standouts (“She Had You,” “His Lamest Flame”) with a suave Magnetic Fields number (“I Don’t Want to Get Over You”), Richard Thompson’s doomed love lament “Beeswing” and romantic motorcycle myth “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” the Green Pajamas’ wonderful “She’s Still Bewitching Me,” Big Star’s “Thirteen,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” (!?), Bob Dylan’s “You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and more. The performances, unembellished and heartfelt, are perfect.
Sticking to familiar terrain for her belated second full-length studio album, Lord took herself to London and placed herself in Saloman’s hands: he produced, plays on (with a drummer, keyboardist and violin/mandolin player) and wrote most of Baby Blue (named for the sterling Badfinger song she covers), yet their musical connection is strong enough that it remains a Mary Lou Lord album. What could have been a Bevis Frond album with a female singer is nothing of the sort; Saloman has the empathy and the anti-social reserves to provide his friend with songs and mostly low-key arrangements that suit only her. His self-lacerating album-opener, “The Wind Blew All Around Me,” is a highlight, as is one of their two jointly written songs, the baby’s breath acoustic “43.” While Lord easily restrains herself to the nearly subliminal dynamic level of “43,” “Turn Me Round,” “Because He’s Leaving” and “Ron,” she doesn’t breathe quite enough fire to keep up with rockers like “The Inhibition Twist” and “Stars Burn Out.” The real problem is the excess of quietly inert numbers, which makes it hard to follow lyrics or sense the state of Lord’s heart here. Baby Blue certainly has its moments, but the album lacks the emotional resonance and rousing musical thrills of her best studio work.
Citing the rare vocal condition of spasmodic dysphonia (which, incidentally, derailed Linda Thompson’s singing career for two decades), Mary Lou Lord announced in 2005 that she would be moving her primary career emphasis to A&R work, starting a management company with her husband.