The story is that Mary Lou Lord was playing on the streets of Berkeley (that's
California) one day, who-knows-when, when a crazy guy came shambling
came cakewalking, came eye-rolling, came wiggle-stepping along -- then
stopped dead, right smack in front of her, she being, of course, this
sunny, incredibly real and sane folk singer. Now this man had a genuine,
you know, really not-at-all-sane look on his face, but he was diggin' the
music and diggin' in his pant pockets, and the yuppies gathered 'round, who
were also diggin' the music, and they started diggin', also, in their pant
pockets for their wallets and -- with one collective eye on the
not-at-all-sane looking man -- they grabbed and held onto those wallets,
tight. The crazy man continued to dig, with great intensity and growing
frustration, until he finally came up with his very own, quite definitely
empty hand. Then, suddenly, seized by inspiration, he ripped out his
entire pant pocket and, with great force and conviction, hurled it into
Lord's guitar case.
This very selfsame pocket hangs on Lord's wall, and whenever she gets
miserable, she looks at it and becomes less miserable, sometimes
substantially less so.
So now you know these things about Lord: 1) She was and always
will be, in some respect, a street performer; 2) No matter how much money
she makes with this major-label debut, a pocket stuffed with greenbacks
will not likely replace the empty pocket on her wall any time soon.
On Got No Shadow, Lord's voice is sweet as she sings catchy,
well-crafted songs and plays acoustic guitar. Accompanying her are
guitarist Nick Saloman, singer/songwriter Elliott Smith, keyboardist Money
Mark and singer Shawn Colvin.
Several of the tracks on Shadow were co-written with Saloman, the
frontman of England's Bevis Frond. The album opens with the upbeat "His
Lamest Flame" and an arresting image: "The knees are bent and the hands are
clasped ... a sudden glimpse through Heaven's gate/ Is all that I'm allowed."
Lord's narrator longs for a relationship she
can't attain -- the yearning is dressed up in a catchy,
sing-along tune that counters pain with pure pop joy.
Lord returns to the topic of missed chances in "She Had You." She sings
along with fuzzy guitar, "I had a friend there/ And she was a waste of
space/ She tried
to match me/ She couldn't stay the pace/ She was a no-one/ She was a loser/
she had you." Lord's delivery is bittersweet but doesn't lower itself to
mere vindictiveness. It is the voice of someone who believes success is the
best revenge. "I went to college/ I got a fancy car/ A drop-dead apartment/
now I'm a shining star/ She never made it/ She's selling Avon," Lord
Lord's slower numbers on Shadow are delicious, from the
wistful melancholy of "Throng of Blowtown" to "Down Along the Lea," the
tin-whistle embellishments and
staccato drums of which give it an almost Celtic flavor. Lord dips into
on her cover of Elizabeth Cotten's "Shake Sugaree," a song about
poverty: "I'm goin' sailin' in a wooden shoe/ I'm lookin' for a star I can
tell my troubles to/ Oh lordy me, didn't I shake sugaree?/ Everything I
got is down in pawn."
One of the nicest treats on Shadow is the pairing of Lord's
voice with Colvin's. Lord's rounded, warm tones blend perfectly with Colvin's
cooler, edgier delivery. The duo's work on "Seven Sisters" gives the
chorus necessary tension, and their heavenly harmonies on "Two Boats"
Shadow closes with "Subway," an ode to Lord's favored
stomping grounds. "There's no sun and no starlight to shine on the rails/ The
spray-painted words of the prophets who failed," she begins over simple,
strummed guitar. The slow pace of the song is in poignant contrast to the
rushing nature of the scenes she describes. Listeners come and go, but Lord
remains a fixture on the platform, at times lonely but never alone. "So hold
my eyes/ While the rest of the city flies by/ And the tips and the tokens you
left me today/ Are the price of my ride on the subway."
If Shadow has a flaw, it's that these songs flow from one to the
next, and sometimes it's difficult to tell
them apart. By the same token, Lord's album floats the listener along on a
gentle sea of folksy melodies, buoyed by the sharp storytelling of Lord's and
Saloman's songs. It would be a tragedy if Lord were marketed as the next
Jewel, another doe-eyed blonde toting her guitar from rags to riches.
Lord's work is much smarter, richer and tougher and, besides, Jewel will
probably never resume playing in cafes while Lord may well be
playing subways (and loving it) until the day she dies.