Mary Lou Lord
In 1993, then (and still largely) unknown Mary Lou Lord released what I still insist is one of the 10 or 15 best singles of the '90s with a little two-sided 7" for Olympia indie Kill Rock Stars. The sweetly verbose originals "Some Jingle Jangle Morning (When I'm Straight)" and "Western Union Desperate" consciously conjured Dylan and the Byrds while the fuzztone guitars and iconoclastic setting cut against whatever precious folkie vibe the songs might have had. It was absolutely perfect. A few years later those songs saw their first CD release with Lord's major-label debut, Got No Shadow, but in a recorded form that slicked them up for a radio bid that never came. The whole album disrupted the easy intimacy that had previously been Lord's calling card, making her seem like just another folk-pop hopeful, albeit one with better taste in material than the norm.
I didn't know it when "Some Jingle Jangle Morning" came out, but the Boston-based Lord paid her dues busking on the streets of Beantown (and, for a while, London) armed with only an acoustic guitar and an ace catalog of (mostly other people's) songs. City Sounds, recorded by Lord herself on a portable DAT during street performances at a Boston subway station and Harvard Square, is a return to the charm of those earlier records. This is basically a covers record, but it's a great one due to both Lord's smart, breathy interpretive singing and positively inspired taste in material.
Lord earns my ardor from the outset by tapping into the lovelorn daydream yearning in two of my all-time favorite songs, Big Star's "Thirteen" and Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road," but the record earns its A- from more unexpected choices. She finds great songs you may not have heard from the likes of the Magnetic Fields (hard to go wrong there, granted), Heatmiser, the Green Pajamas (I don't know either), the Pogues, and a couple of triumphant '90s copyrights from Richard Thompson. I haven't gotten around to Thompson's highly regarded Rumor and Sigh yet (I was still in high school in 1991, gimme a break), but I have a hard time believing that his own version of "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" is more charming than Lord's take here, especially when she bites into the pickup line "I've seen you at the corners and cafés it seems/Red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme." And there are moments like that on almost every song that'll make you grin or sigh. -- Chris Herrington
The Langley Schools Music Project
Part educational odyssey, part cultural oddity, the Langley Schools Music Project opens with a familiar number: Wings' "Venus and Mars." But when sung by a group of Canadian schoolchildren circa the mid-'70s, the lyrics "Sitting in the stands of the sports arena/Waiting for the show to begin" take on a whole new meaning. Like the pint-sized "Another Brick in the Wall" chorus gone haywire, these kids (9 to 12 years old at the time) tackled pop music, reinventing songs from the Beach Boys ("Good Vibrations," "In My Room," "I Get Around," a spectacular "God Only Knows") to David Bowie ("Space Oddity"), Paul McCartney ("Venus and Mars," "Band on the Run"), and more.
Assembled in an elementary school gym that provided natural "wall of sound" acoustics, the adolescent voices alternately whispered and boomed while a bare-bones percussion section kept time in the background. At the very least, this album is mesmerizing -- after all, how many of us longed for a music teacher hip enough to teach Stevie Nicks' "Rhiannon" or Klaatu's "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft"? At its best moments ("The Long and Winding Road," "Desperado"), these recordings gleam with the poignant patina that only a quarter-century can provide. -- Andria Lisle
Echo and the Bunnymen
I once turned my nose up at bands grasping for a glory that had left them long ago. But a few older artists who continue to perform with honeymoon fire have proven that not every act ages poorly. With so many younger bands exuding a particularly '80s odor, it's no surprise to see Reagan-era retreads such as New Order, Depeche Mode, and Echo and the Bunnymen making new bids for relevance. Though, in truth, the latter act were never entirely inactive -- it just seemed that way.
I don't necessarily mind these bands' efforts; these new-wave comeback attempts are a lot less depressing than seeing a new California Raisins record or .38 Special's Wild Eyed Christmas Night staring at me from the bins. But this latest chapter in the saga of Echo co-founders Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant seems particularly purposeless. Since Live At LIPA was recorded during a support tour for their 2001 SpinART debut Flowers, does a lobotomized greatest-hits compilation warmed over with crowd response and dubious new material sound enticing? Of course not.
When they were firing on all cylinders, Echo and the Bunnymen were an above-average band that lacked the "uummph" needed to push them into company with their more essential contemporaries. Crocodiles (1980), while blown out of the water by the debuts of the Cure (Three Imaginary Boys, 1979) and New Order (Movement, 1981), was still a strong start to the McCulloch/Sergeant salad days (and 1984's Ocean Rain was a strong end). A healthy 10 tracks on Live At LIPA originate from the pre-1984 era, though the unflattering amnesia that these versions suffer from quickly deflates their relevance. If there existed an Echo and the Bunnymen tribute band or if Saturday Night Live decided for some reason to parody atmospheric '80s college rock, this is what it would sound like. Even "Lips Like Polygrip er Sugar," their biggest American staple and perhaps catchiest song (originally from 1987's Echo and the Bunnymen), appears to have been neutered by the unkind years that have passed since Dave Kendall was introducing it on MTV's 120 Minutes. I guess it should be noted that this is the band's first official live album, but, sadly, that doesn't mean anything beyond the words that I just typed. -- Andrew Earles
Jon Dee Graham
(New West Records)
A singer-songwriter who came to the genre from membership in Austin's legendary True Believers, Jon Dee Graham turns in a pretty listenable record for a guitarist better known as a sideman (John Doe Band and Kelly Willis). There are a few overtly religious-sounding tunes included, and the presence of a Jesus fan, drummer Jim Keltner, suggests that Jon Dee has given up his sinful ways and embraced the Lord. Even if that's the case, Graham is good enough as a songwriter to suggest a level of irony at work even among the mystical mumbo jumbo hinted at on a track or two.
Graham sings in a gruff baritone not too far removed from Mark Lanegan or Tom Waits. However, he is not a Waits imitator (although he does cover the husky-voiced one's "Way Down in the Hole" here, and it's a darn good version too) who willfully embraces the grotesque and boozy side of life just to fill up a record (as do a lot of sub-Tom impersonators). Hooray For the Moon is a really good "minor" record from an unlikely singer-songwriter, and it gets extra points for not including a lyric sheet -- always a good sign when you're dealing with those pesky singer-songwriter types. -- Ross Johnson