Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Mary Lee Kortes’ Songs of Beulah Rowley Strike a Nerve

The frontwoman of New York band Mary Lee’s Corvette, songwriter Mary Lee Kortes first gained prominence as a singer – she’s done vocal tracks for everybody from Billy Joel to Placido Domingo, and now leads the UN Voices choir. With a crystalline wail that resonates to the spectacular upper reaches of her range, that voice has made her arguably the most individually compelling rock stylist of our era. But it was her turn-of-the-century album True Lovers of Adventure that put her front and center among this era’s greatest tunesmiths: it ranks with Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces, Phil Ochs’ Rehearsals for Retirement and Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space as one of the most brilliant lyrical rock records ever made. While over the years that followed, she’s put out a succession of good albums – including a full-length live version of Blood on the Tracks that’s even better than Dylan’s original – this is her best original recording in over a decade. Not bad for a five-song ep.

The name “Beulah Rowley” came to Kortes in a dream. Kortes has since fleshed Rowley out into an obscure but stunningly eclectic Midwestern songwriter from the previous century, and created a musical which includes songs from throughout her career. Compared with Kortes’ previous work, the songs here are a little more rustic, which makes them contemporaneous with Rowley’s life, but like everything she’s ever done, they’re timeless. Escape is a constant theme; puns and double meanings are everywhere, and more than anything, these songs are dark. Pound for pound, it’s the most intense collection she’s ever put together. The first song is Born a Happy Girl, a spare noir cabaret tune with accordion, bass and drums, the chilling tale of a mother who might have killed her daughter if the child hadn’t escaped. “I put my happy ending here, hallelujah,” the narrator sings, allusively: that happy ending, if it’s to be taken on face value, wasn’t planned.

Well By the Water also works a simple, repetitive, practically hypnotic verse and chorus, chillingly. The sarcasm of “we did well by the water” is crushing. “Hide the heart and cut the thread, all the dreaded secrets dead,” Kortes sings with a quiet, stoic intensity, assessing the cruel aftermath of the hidden, twisted side of smalltown Midwestern (or New England) life. The pace picks up with the jaunty, Moonlighters-esque swing tune Big Things, a defiant escape anthem that clatters along with piano and an evocatively mechanical percussion track. Finally, as the chorus rises, Kortes sails up and hits one of her signature statospheric notes – and then takes it even higher. It’s viscerally breathtaking.

Will Anybody Know That I Was Here is a September song as poignant as any jazz standard ever written. Backed gracefully and tersely by just a piano trio, Kortes traces a day in the life of a woman quietly and anxiously pondering what posterity might hold in store: “When my face is long gone from the mirror, will my voice echo clear?” She ends the song solo, with just a brittle, sustained vibrato. It’s another chilling moment. The ep ends with Someplace We Can’t See, the most rock-oriented song here. It’s sort of a more understated take on the towering intensity Kortes nailed so vividly on her signature ballad 1000 Promises Later, the centerpiece of True Lovers of Adventure. Here, over watery chorus-box guitar, she traces the somewhat embittered, tortuous trail of a couple’s unfulfilled life. Balancing optimism and emotional depletion, it ends ambiguously. It’s the perfect place to continue this haunting and powerfully resonant story: as it is, count it among the elite handful of albums at the top of this year’s already impressive crop.

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May 3, 2011 - Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. In one of her songs Mary Lee questions:

    Where did I go wrong, Elton John
    Thought I wrote the perfect song

    Oh, Mary Lee did write the perfect song. — lots of them!

    Comment by les borean | August 5, 2011 | Reply


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