Busking in the afterglow of a much-rumored tryst with Kurt Cobain and the subsequent Courtney Love-spun venom, neo-folkie Mary Lou Lord made indie-world waves nearly as soon as she started hum ’n’ strumming on the Boston subway nearly a decade ago. Even then, the wisp-lisped singer wore her heart on other musicians’ record sleeves — covering everyone from Lois to X — and eventually released a spattering of singles, EPs and one-offs before recording her disappointingly mediocre big-label debut in 1998. Though dropped from that label soon after, Lord didn’t miss a beat and immediately returned to her ol’ subway stomping grounds, guitar in hand and groove in heart.
It makes perfect sense, then, that Lord’s follow-up LP finds her performing on those same Beantown platforms. Self-recorded in late 2000, Live: City Sounds captures Lord at her most off-the-cuff and confident, sing-sighing her way through sad-sap songs by Shawn Colvin, Magnetic Fields, Heatmeiser and Bruce Springsteen, among others. Unlike cover-prone crooners Kelly Hogan and Cat Power, however, Lord’s attempts at folk-pop de/reconstructions often sound unfortunately more like heartfelt imitations than original (re)interpretations, with Lord seeming to rely solely on her barely-there, Juliana Hatfield-esque vocals to breathe new life into the material.
Given the alluring, no-frills simplicity of her voice, this is more than enough reason for many listeners to seek Lord out. Fair enough. Still, it’s frustrating to hear her beautifully strip these selections to their skeletons, then stop short of uncovering new emotional centers in the songs because she refuses to alter the artists’ original phrasings and nuances. She’s too talented not to know that simply singing a song doesn’t make it her own. Despite Live’s occasionally mesmerizing moments, it’s hard not to imagine what Lord could do if she truly staked claim to these songs.
E-mail Jimmy Draper at firstname.lastname@example.org.