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.

May 3, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Mary Lee’s Corvette at Lakeside, NYC 4/2/10

Good things happening in the Lakeside family: Eric “Roscoe” Ambel’s old band the Del Lords are back together (and recording!), while his wife Mary Lee Kortes’ old if considerably more recent band Mary Lee’s Corvette are back together again as well. The ‘Vette may have been more of rotating cast of characters, but it seems to have hinged on the availability of fiery guitarist Andy York. To say that York’s re-emergence has re-energized the group is an understatement. And York can play anything which is a good thing because Kortes can write anything. Her songs run the length of the emotional spectrum, and a lot of them are very dark, but the band’s sheer joy playing together again translated viscerally from the stage. This was a bassless version of the band, Kortes on acoustic guitar and percussion plus Joe Ciofalo on accordion and Konrad Meissner of the Silos on drums, but the absence of low frequencies didn’t matter.

Kortes’ work is defined by intensity, and this was a set list for fans who enjoy that intensity the most. They opened with the rustic Americana of The Nothing Song (as in “all I want is to want nothing from you”), York’s surgically precise minor-key blues licks underlining the dismissive lyric. They took it up with the casual garage rock snarl of Out from Under It and then brought it down again with Love in Another Language, York’s wide open, wobbly tremolo enhancing the hypnotic, psychedelic ambience. The hits kept coming: “This is about someone who really pissed me off,” Kortes informed the audience as they launched into a ferocious version of another dismissive kiss-off anthem, The Needy.

Why Don’t You Leave Him, the haunting, allusive tale of an abused woman (off the band’s classic True Lovers of Adventure cd from around ten years ago) was quietly riveting. When they reached the last chorus, they took it down to just Meissner’s ominous tom-tom and Kortes voice as she reached the line “he said he’d kill me, and I believed him.” The big show-stopping ballad 1000 Promises Later, also from that album juxtaposed intricately crafted vocal nuance with anguished drama – it was the big hit of the night with the crowd. But the most fascinating moments were two new versions of Beulah Rowley songs (more about her here later – watch this space). The first was a swinging, bluesy min0r-key number with a slightly noir cabaret early-1940s feel: “I was born a happy girl in an unhappy world,” its protagonist announces, and then proceeds to layer on one level of meaning after another. A swing tune, Big Things mined the same territory of the Moonlighters‘ Big Times but more darkly – this is an escape anthem more than an optimistic one. We’re overdue for a Beulah Rowley revival.

“A true story,” Kortes told the crowd, when they reached the encore. “You can’t come up with a name like that.” While the song they played is actually a compassionate look at a girl who can’t come out as a lesbian to her family, by the time the band reached the outro, everybody was laughing and singing along: “What’s the status with Gladys?”

Mary Lee Kortes’ next show is a songwriter summit of sorts with the April Blossoms, a trio with her NYC colleagues Amanda Thorpe and Serena Jost at 7ish on April 21, also at Lakeside.

April 3, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment