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Mary Margaret O’Hara: Miss America (Virgin Records, 1989)

I first heard Mary Margaret O’Hara’s extraordinary voice in 1992. She was in the sound room of a tiny SoHo recording studio, improvising vocals to a poem by fellow Canadian Paul Haines. In between takes, O’Hara sat quietly and nervously on a backless stool in the center of the room. But each time the simple piano accompaniment began, she erupted into one inspired version after another of the song’s single-line lyric, an absurdist vignette about a “silly waitress” stepping compliantly out of her dress. With her repeated performances shifting in tone from flighty to ominous to sweetly seductive, Haines and producer Kip Hanrahan were left scratching their heads behind the soundproof glass over which direction the song should take.

Photo by Nigel Scott.
Photo by Nigel Scott.

O’Hara’s sudden shifts in mood and vocal style shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the startling emotional range and abrupt vocal swings displayed on her 1989 tour de force, Miss America. Much like her famous sister, actress/comedian Catherine O’Hara, the singer/songwriter specializes in exploring seemingly conventional situations and feelings from oblique angles and unexpected perspectives. In Mary Margaret’s case, the situations and emotions come across as deeply personal, and the musically diverse, often heart-wrenching songs on Miss America portray the shifting, at times contradictory emotions experienced by a woman struggling to understand and define herself in a harsh, chaotic, occasionally beautiful world.

O’Hara began developing her idiosyncratic style of singing and songwriting in the mid-70s in her native Toronto. After a brief stint in a local rhythm-and-blues band called Dollars, she graduated to the more challenging, experimental Go Deo Chorus, improvising on stage the melodies and inspired lyrical outbursts that would eventually crystallize into the songs on Miss America. The band’s performances were completely unpredictable, with O’Hara bending and twisting the words and phrases of love songs and ballads in bizarre, often unsettling directions. The shifts in vocal technique were just as dramatic, with her clear, calm soprano abruptly sliding effortlessly into a breathy whisper or bursting suddenly into a piercing shriek or an eerie, fluttering vibrato.

By 1983, O’Hara’s spirited performances had generated enough of a buzz for her to leave the band and sign with Virgin Records as a solo artist. Recruited by the label to handle the production chores, XTC’s Andy Partridge fled the studio shortly after recording began, exasperated by O’Hara’s stubborn refusal to compromise her musical vision to serve anything remotely resembling a conventional pop format. The project then floated in musical limbo until 1988, when guitarist Michael Brook heard O’Hara perform at a club in Toronto and offered his services as producer. Through their resulting collaboration, O’Hara and Brook somehow managed to transform the cacophonous mess that frightened Partridge and the people at Virgin into one of the most beautiful, disciplined, and musically inventive recordings of the decade.

The band on Miss America—which features Rusty McCarthy and Brooks on guitars, Henrik Riik and David Piltch on bass, Don Rooke on steel guitar, Hugh Marsh on violin, and Michael Sloski on drums—provides a perfect complement to O’Hara’s wildly inventive vocals. With bass and guitar alternately weaving 5/8 and 3/4 counterpoints into the steady 4/4 rhythms of the full ensemble, the instrumental arrangements sometimes hold O’Hara’s frantic vocals together, while at other times straining ominously against the order she struggles to restore.

Many of O’Hara’s songs display a fascination with the fragility and flexibility of words. Meanings shift suddenly—and often disturbingly—as she sneaks an odd word or phrase into a seemingly upbeat ballad. The jaunty rhythms and inspiring lyrics of “Anew Day,” with its repeated prophecies of better things to come, begin to sound increasingly dark and apocalyptic as the song progresses:

With the tears round your head and the stone in your eyes, look out your change of heart and look at the same skies. Over ground wet with sorrow that will always look that way, everyone walk in brightness. It’s a new day.

The newness and light in the lyrics and O’Hara’s spirited vocals notwithstanding, the future promises to be just as bleak and tear-stained as the present, and the song’s apparent optimism begins to suggest a more fragile, desperate, potentially self-destructive point of view. As the lyrics begin to come apart at the end (“Is it better to disappear than just to stand so near a hole?”), it’s no longer clear precisely what this “new day” means and how it will come about.

Alternately love song, prayer, and defiant self-affirmation, “Help Me Lift You Up” is one of the most beautiful, elegantly achieved vocal performances I’ve ever heard. Moaning softly over a slowly strummed acoustic guitar and crossing steel guitars, O’Hara repeatedly offers her hands and her heart to the finally elusive “you” on the other end of the song:

I have a dream; it’s very dear. You’re all around but never near. Help me lift you up.

In the song’s fading final measures, the lyrics recede into an ascending sigh, and O’Hara’s voice, sweetly mimicking the steel guitar, hauntingly disappears above the mix in a pure, angelic falsetto.

The recording’s real masterpiece, “Body’s in Trouble,” describes the inherent difficulties of discovering and affirming oneself in the tangled mess of relationships and responsibilities in which most of us live. The broad, staggered phrases of Rusty McCarthy’s echoed guitar hold things together as O’Hara probes, pokes, and caresses both the internal and external obstacles to her desire. Her consistent use of the impersonal article “a” to introduce the body in question (an inspiration from her French-Canadian neighbors?) increases the song’s oddness and ambiguity:

You just want to run somebody, and a body won’t let you. Want to let somebody, and a body won’t let you. You want to kiss, feel, take, hear, ride, stop, start somebody, and a body won’t let you. Who do you talk to when a body’s in trouble?

In spite of the anguished confusion of the lyrics, O’Hara delivers the “uh-ooo-ah” that punctuates each verse with a breathless urgency that sounds not only joyful but damned near orgasmic.

In spite of widespread critical acclaim upon its initial release (and the admiration of fellow musicians like Kristin Hersh, Michael Stipe, Tom Waits, and Alex Chilton), Miss America was largely neglected by Virgin and never managed to find the broader audience that O’Hara and her music deserve. In 1992, she released an imaginative EP of Christmas songs, followed almost a decade later by the lovely compositions that she contributed to Canadian director Bill Robinson’s 2001 film, Apartment Hunting (in which she also played a small role). But her recordings during the past decade have been primarily limited to lending vocal support to other people’s projects (Morrissey, Gary Lucas, and Kip Hanrahan) and providing single contributions to compilations, such as Sweet Relief II (a tribute to Vic Chesnutt) and September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill. Miss America stands alone, however, as her unique and seemingly unrepeatable triumph.


David Shirley

David Shirley and his trusty pickup truck, Old Blue, currently divide their time between Brooklyn, New York, and Oxford, Mississippi.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2009

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