Mary Margaret O'Hara in Ecstasy
By Kurt Wildermuth (May 2002)"Mind-blowing," "stunning," "dazzling," "brilliant," "strikingly original," "exceptionally superb," "extraordinary," "very unusual . . . !" are the sorts of words fans use to describe the Canadian singer-songwriter Mary Margaret O'Hara. "One of the most powerful singers I've ever heard," R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe once called her; "a performer of astonishing force."
Stipe's endorsement was reprinted on a promotional sticker affixed to Koch Records' 1996 reissue of Miss America, O'Hara's only full-length recording, originally released by Virgin Records in 1988. Even more impressive than the devotion O'Hara inspires is that it's pretty much based on one 44-minute, 49-second album. Wanting more, devotees have tracked down her Christmas EP (Koch, 1996) and her contributions to the compilations Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation-The Songs of Vic Chesnutt (Columbia, 1996) and September Songs: A Tribute to Kurt Weill (Sony, 1997). They've cataloged her guest spots on records by Bruce Cockburn, Morrissey, Gary Lucas, John & Mary, Paul Haines, the Henrys, and others. They've found cover versions of her songs by the Cowboy Junkies, the Walkabouts, This Mortal Coil, Holly Cole, Sue Garner. They've seen, or at least noted, her acting in independent movies such as Candy Mountain (1987) and Apartment Hunting (2000). The lucky few who've been to her concerts employ the full range of superlatives to describe those appearances, in which M2OH, as she's known, enacts the songs through a transformative series of seemingly involuntary motions. "You were watching an immensely sophisticated artist figuring out from scratch what it is to sing," Amy Taubin explained in the Village Voice after a 1998 show. "When it all comes together-the voice, the rhythm, the lyrics-each time is the first time, and it's ecstasy."
Ecstasy seems to be what O'Hara was seeking throughout Miss America. In this quest, she resembles the late Pakistani qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, though O'Hara's music is Western and secular. She resembles Hugo Largo's Mimi Goese (another Stipe favorite; in 1988, he produced Hugo Largo's Drum), though O'Hara's songs have more discernible forms and more decipherable lyrics. She resembles Van Morrison, though she's far more interested than he is in meeting the listener halfway, drawing the audience into the artist's search. She even resembles Roxy Music's first album in the way she bends and shapes pop-song structures as well as Avalon-era Roxy in the way she lends her voice to the exploration of musical atmospheres. If Roxy Music is about the triumph of impersonality, of having nothing to say and saying nothing stylishly, Mary Margaret O'Hara is about having something so personal to say that something, maybe your one thing, bursts out of any container, any song. That spilling over is ecstasy, or it can be: "joy is the aim," O'Hara sings on "Year in Song," written a full ten years before Miss America was released.
Why the decade-long gap? The story goes something like this. Sister of actress Catherine O'Hara (SCTV, the Home Alone movies, Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show), M2OH was born in Toronto, graduated from Ontario Art College, and performed in a couple of bands before, around 1983, going solo and getting signed to Virgin. XTC's Andy Partridge liked her demos so much that he agreed to produce the record, but he reportedly disliked O'Hara's ideas or recording techniques or something (if not her one thing) so much that he fled the studio. According to some reports, he lasted one day. The O'Hara tapes lingered or languished until Canadian guitarist-composer-producer Michael Brook agreed to work on them. Brook was once a member of the new-wave band Martha and the Muffins (remember the great "Echo Beach" single?), but he might be best known as a collaborator with Brian Eno and our man Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Opinions differ, rumors gathered as to how successful the O'Hara/Brook collaboration was, but the reissue's liner notes make clear that six of the eleven tracks were recorded in 1984, four were recorded during mixing in 1988, and one was recorded in 1983 and mixed "later." Three of the 1988 recordings were produced by O'Hara and Brook; the rest were "constructed and conducted" and produced by M2OH, who also did the design, drawings, and calligraphy.
The music, reflecting none of this odd history, starts straightforwardly enough. On "To Cry About," over ringing electric guitar and five-string bass, O'Hara sings of love lost: "there will be a timed disaster / there's no you in my hereafter." The song is practically an advertisement for her voice, which ranges here from a low rumble to a near-whisper.
Drums kick in as "Year in Song" takes us to very different territory (Throughout the CD, guitar, bass, and drums are augmented with violin, piano, lap steel, and, on one song, something called DX-7 log rhythm). O'Hara begins the song with recognizable, if cryptic, lyrics, but halfway through she starts to free-associate, or to play with the lyrics in a way that poststructuralist poets would envy:
sitting on beats all wind-up toys
sitting on beats all wind-up noise
am damn noise and am sitting on it
i'm damn noise and i'm sitting on it
What is she getting at or working out here? What "iss [sic] the aim eh?... joy?" The aim may be finding and going with the groove, letting the sense of the song take care of itself. By the time she's barking about "ta-ta music" in lines difficult to decode without the printed lyrics, O'Hara seems to have created her own set of self-expressive terms. In this, she resembles Kristin Hersh, who as a member of Throwing Muses and as a solo artist has often waited for songs to transmit themselves to and through her in late-night, dreamlike sessions. O'Hara's songs may be more constructed than received- she's writing "standards," after all, that lend themselves to being covered in a way that Hersh's songs never do- but she too is twisting logic and language to fit a vision (on one song she laughs a little, and it's hard to know how much calculation goes into that lightness, how much of that spontaneity is planned). In "Body's in Trouble," the next song, the body's both an object and a person. O'Hara never spells out the dilemma, just pushes and pulls and plays around with the idea of forces at work. Meanwhile, the music rises, dips, bends, and breaks.
Far more grounded, though its speaker "beg[s] stars above," is "Dear Darling," a countryish ballad of devotion and longing. In conveying "a thing of such beauty" that "must be called love," M2OH proves the vocal and emotional equal of Patsy Cline. Next, she's a French chanteuse fronting an English ska-pop band on the bouncy, piano-based "Anew Day," which advises:
when your heart is sick with
at a long and lonely way
walk in brightness
'cause it's anew day
Sounding like that song's somber cousin, "When You Know Why You're Happy" is a slow vamp over which O'Hara meditates on knowingness and happiness. "My Friends Have" is propulsive, while "Help Me Lift You Up" is its gentle flip-side. "Keeping You in Mind" is slinky lounge-jazz, with a highly articulate violin solo and O'Hara's sweetest vocal. From an entirely different universe, a world unto itself, comes the off-kilter funk workout of "Not Be Alright": "my tail, this tail, this tail is tall / this tale is tall / innocent to a fault," O'Hara riffs, making it perfectly, inarguably clear that some unnamed situation will not, just will not "be alright."
In the last track, accompanied only by bass, her voice gliding and ascending, M2OH offers us (or herself?) the assurance that "you will be loved again." Perhaps, when you've loved, when you've lost, when you've had something to cry about, when on the way to feeling better you've found sounds that say what it feels like to break, then all you'll find at the other end of this process is the solace of words. "The poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice," as Wallace Stevens put it in "Of Modern Poetry." "The poem of the act of the mind." That's the experience of Miss America, the sense it gives of this singular creative process, part thought, part voice, being caught, directed, redirected, and released.
Unreleased, of course, is M2OH's follow-up recording. Fans say Virgin found it too uncommercial. Of course.
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