Mary Lou Lord first appeared on record with a chiming, folk-inflected tune called “Camden Town Rain” on a 1993 Kill Rock Stars compilation, Stars Kill Rock. Older than many of her riot-grrrl peers in the Olympia scene, the Boston-raised singer had already released Real — a cassette of her renditions of songs by Nirvana, Dylan, Billy Bragg, Big Star, Led Zeppelin, John Cale and others — and had a brief but subsequently well-publicized (pre-Courtney Love) love affair with Kurt Cobain. Her background was in folk music as well as punk, having been steeped in the Melvins and Shonen Knife — but also in Fairport Convention and Shawn Colvin. A virtual Zelig of indie rock history, popping on and off the sidelines of many acts that later attained far greater notoriety, she has had less commercial and critical impact than her work richly deserves.
Self-trained as a busker during time spent in London, Lord became comfortable playing guitar in public, choosing cover songs to grab the attention and pocket change of passers-by on sidewalks and subway platforms. That canny sense of song selection and Lord’s thin but appealing singing and enthusiastic strumming became the basis of a peripatetic career of quietly substantive work. To that end, it’s a pity that much of Lord’s subsequent notoriety was due to her unwanted place as the cherubic face on Courtney Love’s dartboard, as there’s far more to her career than the lingering remnant of that long-ago romantic rivalry.
Lord first established her own merits with a startling three-song Kill Rock Stars 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 Olympia riot-grrrl pioneers Team Dresch appears on the 7-inch, Lord had already established her indie rock bona fides in Boston by co-founding the band that became Helium, although she never appeared on a Helium album.) But the 1993 Mary Lou Lord mini-album, an affecting acoustic gem that is alternately sad, funny, malicious and tender, shoots lightyears ahead of both the Real cassette and the 7-inch. 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 get a joyous, rich rock treatment, complete with Juliana Hatfield on backing vox), Daniel Johnston (“Speeding Motorcycle”) and Matt Keating (whose “That Kind of Girl,” with its jealous, 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.
Lord connected with Elliott Smith via Slim Moon, founder of Kill Rock Stars, and toured with him extensively in the 1990s as Smith’s critical acclaim began to grow. Lord also began interpreting his songs, and Smith produced her version of “I Figured You Out,” which he had disregarded as sounding too much like the Eagles, on the five-song Martian Saints! EP, which follows a similar structure to the self-titled EP, only with more musicians and ambition (if not success). Lord’s singing on material by Saloman (the theremin-enriched title song), Peter Laughner (“Cinderella Backstreet”), Pete Droge and Smith (“I Figured You Out,” the disc’s most affecting track) is more confident and pitch-pure, but the fussier production audibly obscures a bit of her winsome vulnerability. Despite substantial charm, it suffers by comparison to Mary Lou Lord.
A move into major label clutches didn’t make Lord 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 painful, 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. But the big budget did pay for a host of supportive guests, including Shawn Colvin, Roger McGuinn, Nels Cline of Wilco and Jon Brion. For contrast, The Pace of Change, a promotional EP distributed with the album, returns Lord to her stripped-down busking mode with 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 returned to her roots, singing 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). It’s all over the place stylistically: Lord’s three songs range 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 Saloman’s “Aim Low,” a ringing Byrdsy call for lowering one’s expectations. You can disagree with the sentiment, but the melody can’t be denied.
The live City Sounds, initially self-released and sold by mail, is a far better, caught-in-the-act subway production: just Lord, her acoustic guitar plugged into an amp, a DAT recorder and, occasionally, a small but appreciative 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 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. It’s the best way to experience her music without springing for a Charlie Card. Rubric later picked up City Sounds and issued as a CD single with a re-recording of “Speeding Motorcycle” to capitalize on the use of the song in a Target commercial. B-sides include two otherwise-unavailable Bevis Frond covers from the demo sessions for Got No Shadow.
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 fully remains a Mary Lou Lord album. 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 for the nearly subliminal “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) and parental responsibilities, Lord largely retreated from performing and recording in the mid-2000s. Then, in 2013, she fell from the fire escape outside her apartment and suffered serious injuries, which put her out of commission for a while. Her first studio album in eleven years was the Kickstarter-funded Backstreet Angels, a cross-continental collaborative effort including Saloman in Britain and new friend Maryanne Window in Tasmania. On a shoestring budget, the 2015 record is simply produced and charming, with a host of covers from familiar sources, including Green Pajamas (“She’s Still Bewitching Me,” “She Turns Me On”), Lucinda Williams (“Metal Firecracker”) and Paul Westerberg (“It’s a Wonderful Lie”) alongside obscurities like Peter Bruntnell’s Jimmy Webb-nicking “By the Time My Head Gets to Phoenix.” Lord and Nick Salomon co-wrote about half of the album, including the touchingly self-referential “The Run I’ve Been On.” Maryanne Window co-wrote and sings on “My Buddy Valentine,” a rock history tutorial that riffs on Dylan, Don McLean, the Byrds and other luminaries, while Lord showcases her daughter, Annabelle Lord-Patey, and Boston-based songwriter Matt Minigell on his “I Feel Better.” The singing is sometimes weak, and Backstreet Angels may not be a terribly significant record, but it’s a pleasing and encouraging return.
In the late 2010s, Lord launched How the Hell Did That Happen?, a weekly podcast with Maryanne Window, in which she has discussed her peripatetic musical history and details of her relationship with Cobain. In 2021, to kick off Kill Rock Stars’ 30th anniversary celebration, she released a digital single of Elliott Smith’s “Some Song” with Mikaela Davis. In late 2021, Lord announced that Fire Records, which had reissued Got No Shadow, was preparing a retrospective of her work on vinyl and CD. Hopefully this will bring more attention to the musical contributions of a woman more frequently recognized for her collaborations with future stars.