Distorted guitars tend to take up a lot of sonic real estate. They’re not often a great fit for songwriters whose lyrics tend towards the complicated and the wry. They haven’t been a great fit for Mary Lorson’s music since the first couple of records she made as part of Madder Rose. Since MR’s third album – the dreadfully titled Tragic Magic – when they were replaced by programmed beats, they’ve been almost entirely absent from her subsequent work (encompassing three records with Saint Low, one with Billy Coté, another one with Coté that was credited to the Piano Creeps, and one with the Soubrettes). The prepostorous ‘New Velvet Underground’ tag that had been applied to Madder Rose by certain rock critics didn’t last past Tragic Magic, and by the time Saint Low were making records in the first half of the 2000s, few were paying attention (although Lorson did manage to place songs in episodes of The Sopranos, Felicity, Alias and Skins, which may not win many new fans but has definite financial upsides).
This was a shame, as Lorson sounds much more at ease as a songwriter on, say, Tricks For Dawn from 2002 than she ever did with the churning guitars and drums of Madder Rose’s first couple of albums. Tricks For Dawn is low-key, jazzy and spare. Instruments are given space in the arrangements, and miked from a distance. The drums on Anything Can Happen sound like they’ve been miked from the other side of the room. The hum from Coté’s Stratocaster is plainly audible whenever he stops playing for a bar or two. My own tastes run towards the dry and the close, but to everything there is a season, and this is an inviting sound, the appropriate sound, running against the grain in an era where ‘less is more’ is not a maxim that record-makers pay much heed to, a situation that hasn’t reversed in the 11 years since Tricks For Dawn‘s release.
Tricks For Dawn is not a classic record – there are a few too many songs that arrive, dwell in front of you and then depart without really going anywhere, and Lorson’s lyrics can occasionally irritate. There’s an archness to the likes of Friends, I Have Been Drinking and Morningless Dreamer (present in their titles too) that I find grating. Lorson’s songs are obscure enough that we’re never sure who the subject of the song is, and whether they deserve to be on the wrong end of such affected superiority.
That tone is perhaps only noticeable because of the open-heartedness of the record’s finest songs. Lorson in a recent interview picked Anything Can Happen as one of her best three songs she’s ever written, and she’s not wrong, but Long Way Down is its equal. It’s surely not a coincidence that these are the songs on which Lorson finally lets down her guard. She and the guesting Evan Dando harmonising on the lines ‘Hold on tight to me, baby/Cos it’s such a long way down’ provide perhaps the most magical moment on the album. Long Way Down’s two guitar solos – the second, clean solo presumably by Coté and the distorted first one by either Lorson or Dando (who is credited with ‘disortion and Vox organ’, providing the best clue, perhaps, as to the player) – provide, in the way of the best instrumental solos, the song’s emotional peaks and make you wish Lorson had been as unabashedly straight-talking all the way through the record rather than hiding behind internal rhymes and polysyllables. In these precious minutes, responding to the raised stakes, the chamber-pop backing of string section and horns rises above merely pretty and becomes properly beautiful.
*Potential listeners to this record should be aware that the horns and some of the guitar parts are significantly sharp of the piano that provides the bedrock of most of the arrangements. You’ll need to be able to put up with this to get much enjoyment from this album. Some days, I admit, I just can’t.