REVIEW: Mary Margaret O’Hara, Miss America (Koch)

I can only offer this, my personal testimonial as to why I love this CD. It’s been a while since I felt a missionary fervor about a piece of music, a while since I felt like music mattered and wasn’t a bunch of self-centered poseurs doodling around for a buck, leeching off the insecurities of teenagers. Koch has done the music world a great service by re-releasing this special piece of music. They have also promised to re-release Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Christmas EP (her only other formal release). It’s a real crime that she hasn’t had wider exposure and more outlets for her music (she shows up in cameos on The Henrys, Gary Lucas, and weird places like Sweet Relief 2). She may be Canada’s best kept secret, and if you give Miss America a chance, it might enrich your life.

I first looked up this record because I noticed that both halves of the Throwing Muses (Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly, now of Belly) listed this record in their Top Ten Favorite Albums. It was impossible to find in record stores, but luckily a Canadian friend had it on tape. On the first listening, it was a little bit of a blur, but she clearly had a dynamite voice and a broad variety of styles, some quiet and brooding some spastically rhythmic. A piece of one song, stuck in my head “when a memory’s all I’ve got, I’ll remember I’ve got a lot. Not having you, but keeping you in mind,” because it sounded strikingly like a woman singing herself to sleep to the sound of her favorite jazz record, consoling herself with the sound and comfort of individual notes. So, I returned to the record and a new part of another song stayed with me: “But I’ll still feel for you when you go and you… you’ll know better than to cry about”: the way she slips into a falsetto on the word “feel” is so gorgeous and heartbroken that the song seems to burst open. I was hooked.

I started to notice the startlingly tasteful bass work on some of the songs, especially the songs with a groove: “Anew Day” throbs with a subtle and beautiful bass line that uplifts you indirectly, complementing the oblique lyrics. The chorus sounds like encouragement (“everyone walk in brightness, because it’s a new day”), until the lyrics start to bewilder you (“it is better to disappear than just to stand near a hole?”), and then when you check the lyric sheet, you realize it’s actually “anew day”, which is subtly but importantly different from “a new day”. “When You Know Why You’re Happy” has another memorable and repeated bass line. “You move much better than you know not just some jerk to and fro when you know why you’re happy” But the happiness sounds manic and desperate. “Your world goes to smash too” and the smash does not sound like such a good thing when it’s encased in this obsessive groove.

A number of the songs express a fascination with repetition. It would be oversimplifying to call the repetition “insane”, but it’s a few steps beyond passionate. “Joy is the aim” becomes the repeated syllables “is the aim eh joy”, in “Year in Song”. “Treat me, I’m getting low, high up where the floaters go ready to put you under light sedation, I’m not ready to go under! I’m not ready to go under!” M2OH (as she calls herself!) pushes and shreds and tangles her voice in this song to stunning effect. Her voice, so often clear and strong, becomes hoarse with screaming and fluid with babbling.

Some songs have a clear (not simplistic) center of gravity, often a phrase with simple words, but surprisingly rich for the length: “Help Me Lift You Up”, which is already a beautiful phrase gains a dimension that is more than a simple twist when preceded by lines like “you’ll have to be with your own kind, I’ll have to stay with my own kind, help me lift you up”. M2OH compresses a lot of consolation into another short phrase: “You Will Be Loved Again” is another beautiful phrase. A lot of the healing after a breakup has to do with believing in that phrase again, and the song itself is stripped bare (only accompanied by stand-up bass), again having the air of talking/crying yourself to sleep.

This whole record is marked with an amazing appropriateness. The playing is first-rate, and all the musical contributions seem essential and informed by a dedication to taste. The instruments on the songs typically include ringing guitar lines, chiming and clear piano, looping bass lines, and aching slide guitar. A number of the songs have no drums, and often the drums sit back as texture in the mix. Don Rooke, who contributed guitar on the record, enthused about M2OH’s grasp of strange cross-rhythms. I’m enthused too, because they actually complement the emotion of the piece: “Help Me Lift You Up” has a simple bass figure played in 5/8 against a straight quarter-note beat for the voice and guitar, but it simply comes across as moody and elusive and not some wacky trick. In contrast, the 5/8 guitar line in “Not Be Alright” seems spastic and disjoint, much like the rest of the song (“to lean away and to fall back on it to prohibit the development of new types and to seek to ensure to agree as follows”), which is an extended rant by a woman whose mental television seems to constantly flip through channels, making obsessive memories collide with disassociated boilerplate text.

The record itself was mostly done in 1984, but its release was delayed, presumably because Virgin thought M2OH was a lunatic. Virgin brought in Michael Brook as “co-producer” to mainstream-ize this unusual record, and finally released it in 1988, didn’t support it, and then buried it. Koch has repackaged the CD nicely, spicing up the insert with many lively and light illustrations by M2OH herself. They also notably shrunk down a lot of Michael Brook’s production and guitar credits and touched up the cover art. This record is the perfect soundtrack for post-romantic-trauma manic-depression, as I can testify. It’s inspiring, consoling, mind-blowing and everything that music should be and so rarely is. Try this record.