Sweet Subway Songs

The story:

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

along,

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.

The review:

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/

But

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/

And

now I'm a shining star/ She never made it/ She's selling Avon," Lord

continues.

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

American folk

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"

raise gooseflesh.

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.