Most alterna-stars have an equal and opposite indie fraternal twin championed by the geek fanboy crowd that still can’t believe the Feelies weren’t as big as R.E.M., that won’t go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until Big Star gets enshrined. The fanboys don’t simply resent success and treasure obscurity. They despair that the artists they champion go nowhere while less talented, better marketed knockoffs go on to fame and fortune.
Liz Phair devotees will probably always resent Alanis Morissette. Phair fans saw Alanis as a dumbed-down, undereducated version of Liz and dismissed her as a Canadian teen queen who couldn’t define irony, as Tiffany after she got dumped. They couldn’t believe Morissette’s cartoonish come-ons and childish rage would sell almost 20 million records, while Phair’s sexy, nuanced portraits of gender trouble went largely ignored. After all, Phair could define irony, and probably post-structuralism, too, all while pretending she was in a Galaxie 500 video.
Likewise, fans of Boston singer-songwriter Mary Lou Lord will forever clench their jaws in frustration every time Jewel screeches, “Who will say-eeh-ayve your soul?” Jewel’s saccharine acoustic laments were pulled from high-school journals that make Hallmark cards read like Tolstoy. But while Jewel collected Grammy nominations and toured the world, critical favorite Lord collected subway tokens and played Boston street corners for spare change.
Why, wondered the dweeb in the faded K Records T-shirt, couldn’t Jewel’s success happen to someone deserving, like Lord? People would marvel at that dreamy voice, a warm west wind that could melt icebergs and save the Titanic; they’d wonder what other interesting singers they hadn’t heard. They’d hear Lord’s covers of Nick Saloman, Richard Thompson, Elliott Smith, Pastels, Peter Stampfel, and, yes, Big Star songs and rush to the record stores. So why couldn’t Mary Lou get that kind of marketing push?
Well, there’s a reason the cliché warns people to be careful with their wishes. Lord got her big budget, her major label, and a marketing push second only to Mr. Potato Head’s efforts on behalf of those new Burger King fries. Sadly, Got No Shadow is superslick shlock, overproduced product that rubs away Lord’s quirky, unadorned beauty. Those who saw her as a masterful stylist and interpreter, who thought the merest catch in her naked voice conveyed more emotion than Courtney Love could muster with any howl, will have to mine layers of gloss here to find what once made Lord unique.
In their rush to get Lord played on the radio, the folks at Sony needlessly airbrushed her wondrous voice and buried it beneath layers of passionless musicianship. Rarely does such a pleasant album amount to such a betrayal of talent. Got No Shadow should be a triumphant affair, an unexpected delight of a crossover like Chumbawamba’s Tubthumper, an easy recommendation to casual fans as “Jewel, only good; Shawn Colvin, but 10 years hipper.” Lord will finally get heard; she’ll be mentioned in the same breath as Jewel, Paula Cole, and Lisa Loeb. Alas, her record is just as mediocre as theirs.
It’s not what the indie world would have imagined. Lord had a colorful historya dalliance with Kurt Cobain that caused Courtney Love to chase her down the streets of Los Angeles and straight onto Hard Copy not long after Lord barely masked the affair in her first single, “Some Jingle Jangle Morning (When I’m Straight).” Lord launched even less concealed attacks on Love in “Camden Town Rain” and the Matt Keating-penned “That Kind of Girl.”
The Keating song, with its classic couplet “And all of her exes, they could form a band/To play the kind of music that she could never stand,” appeared on Lord’s self-titled debut on Kill Rock Stars. The cover of that CD featured a photo of a smiling Lord and her amplifier, onto which she’d taped a photo of Lester Bangs, giving hipsters yet another reason to love her. On that record, Lord protested that she didn’t belong in “His Indie World,” that all she wanted was “my Joni, my Nick, Neil, and Bob,” but she protested too much. Sure, she adores Dylan, Mitchell, and the traditional acoustic avatarsbut she worships the brilliant oddballs, tooDrake, Tim Buckley, Scott Walker.
Furthermore, “His Indie World” brilliantly satirized compulsive indie-rock fandom as only an insider could. It played like one those poems strung together out of improbable newsmaker rhymes that Roger Angell writes for the New Yorker year-enders. “He says my songs are too deep and gloomy/He wishes that I could be more like Jenny Toomey,” Lord complains about her love object, bemoaning how “his Heavenly hang-up is getting me down.”
“His Indie World” didn’t get included on Got No Shadow, and that’s for the best. Several of Lord’s earliest songs are remixed and given a glossy treatment here for no good reason except to render them excessively radio-friendly at the expense of their charm. “Some Jingle Jangle Morning” is a song about being heartbroken over a rock star and turning to salvation in rockyou can imagine Lord thumbing through her albums looking for solaceand she alludes to a half-dozen of her favorites. But the new version wallpapers right over the quirky vocal inflections that helped give the song its honesty, erasing even her nifty Dylan impression on his “You awake me without warning” line during the last chorus. The drums plod in a relentless 4/4 beat; the guitars rock a little too self-consciously.
Something similar happens on “Western Union Desperate.” It’s perhaps Lord’s most affecting song, a story of leaving an unfinished relationship behind while on the road, originally an acoustic B-side to the “Jingle Jangle Morning” single. In that version, there’s a sentimental crack in Lord’s voice on the line “Kiss goodbye the summer sky,” as she drags out the last word to give a sense of just how endless that sky is, how much space it leaves between her and her beloved. (It’s as poignant a bit of phrasing as the one Patsy Cline creates in “She’s Got You” when she sings, “I’ve got your memory/Or has it got me,” and she lingers over the “or,” making it sound as if it could be 30 years later that she’s having this instant of self-realization.) But the production ruins Lord’s momentshe sings straight through the song, and the emotional impact disappears.
As for the new songs, they run from convoluted to confused. That seemed inconceivable, considering the involvement of Nick Salomanthe great British songwriter who records as the Bevis Frondwho either wrote or co-wrote most of these songs with Lord. Perhaps surrounding herself with such great covers gave Lord unnecessary hang-ups about her own writing.
Their snapshot of London riverbanks in “Down Along the Lea” seems unfocused and imprecise. “Two Boats” actually uses the metaphor of two boats sailing away from each other to describe a couple drifting apart. But at least clichés are comprehensible, which gives the song an edge over “Throng of Blowtown,” which kicks off by nicking lines from the Beach Boys and Richard Thompson, then starts making references to cocaine, New York, and Studio 54, before name-dropping Carol Kaye. Lord drops a Smashing Pumpkins song title (“Tonight, Tonight”) as an introduction to a line about the “two Billys”Corgan and someone elsefighting over copyright laws. And then Sonny comes home.
All of which prompts the question of whether Lord could have written one good song for this record during the four years (and with the considerable advance) she had to work on it. She did manage that. “His Lamest Flame” sparkles with wit and smarts. So does “Subway,” Lord’s reflections on her busking days, which has crisp portraits of the subway regulars who passed her each day and vivid descriptions of working the underground rails.
At the end of “Subway,” Lord volunteers, “I’ll be Jimmie Rodgers, the Cure, or the Who/If it makes any difference to you.” Too bad Lord’s handlers wouldn’t just let her be herself. It probably won’t matter that this record smothers Lord’s talents. Bet that Got No Shadow goes platinum and earns Lord a best new artist Grammy nomination next year anyway. The geek fanboys will root for her anyway, still hoping that some of the new fans track down Lord’s most moving recordings on her still easy-to-find EPs and singles.CP