MARY LEE'S CORVETTE
On All Cylinders
True Lovers of Adventure
By Kurt Wildermuth
Name a perfect album. Name another one. Keep going. You'll probably run through a plethora, a myriad, a veritable Amazon of titles before you cite True Lovers of Adventure, the 1999 CD by Mary Lee's Corvette. It's a perfect album, but at this point it might be lost in the shuffle of even those true lovers of pop-rock who picked up on it at the time. As I write, a mere 21 Discogs contributors say they own the CD, and 2 want it; the two reviews give it a combined rating of 4.5 out of 5.
There have been other releases by Mary Lee's Corvette and by its leader and partial namesake, Mary Lee Kortes. All these works might be perfect, and I encourage you to investigate them and report back, but I'm here to celebrate this one delightful recording, True Lovers of Adventure.
In 2018, Kortes collected, curated, and edited the collection Dreaming of Dylan: 115 Dreams About Bob. Sixteen years earlier, Mary Lee's Corvette gained attention for its album-length, concert-recorded cover of Dylan's Blood on the Tracks (speaking of perfect albums; perfect in its imperfectly Dylanesque way, anyway). Some of that attention came from Dylan, who gave his royal seal of approval. While I wouldn't have associated True Lovers of Adventure with Blood on the Tracks, the fact that Kortes is such a fan doesn't surprise me, and it provides a nice filter for thinking through her music. I'm reminded of the cassette-tape version of Blood on the Tracks, where because of time limitations the LP's closing song, the contemplative "Buckets of Rain," switches places with the much jauntier "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go." The album still ends well, but the effect is quite different. The sequencing becomes part of the artistry. Likewise, if you change the running order of True Lovers of Adventure, such as by putting the CD on shuffle, it loses the cumulative effects of songs playing off one another. While this isn't a concept album, the songs are thematically linked. Within its musical unity there are variations, and within the songs' diverse circumstances there are variations on a theme. That theme is love as life's great adventure, which doesn't always end well.
True Lovers of Adventure was produced by Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, Kortes's husband and a guitarist best known for leading the New York roots-rockers the Del-Lords. He plays some guitar here, but the main guitarists are Andy York and Stephen Butler. Brad Albetta plays bass. Graham Hawthorne plays drums. Added sweeteners include Joe Chiofalo's accordion, George York's clarinet, Sibel Firat's cello, and Lloyd Landesman's Hammond organ.
Throughout, Kortes displays a way with words and metaphors. Her songs are verbally and melodically eloquent, and her voice has a hint of a catch that leaves you hanging on phrases. It could be a deeper, earthier, more flexible Deborah Harry's or a less earthy Syd Straw's (sorry for the obscure comparison--but Straw's recordings are worth seeking out).
The CD opens with its sonically and thematically broadest track. Big guitar chords serve as a statement of purpose: Hello and welcome to a world where we let amplified strings ring out! The drums sound big--not '80's-processed big but radio-ready big. The song, "Need for Religion," posits a romantic attraction as related to a spiritual quest. From its clever lyrics ("I gave you all of my best emotions / My heart, my home / My spare change") to its '60's vibe, complete with electric sitar and a sly Beach Boys reference, the track offers details to savor.
Still, if you're the kind of listener I suspect is the target audience for True Lovers of Adventure, this opener makes you a little nervous. You like it enough, the hooks grab you, now and then parts of it surface in your memory, but you don't tend to choose this kind of music.
The tension of wondering if, worrying that, every song will be so anthemic is productive. No matter how many times you hear it, "Need for Religion" sets you up to feel great relief when the next track, "End of the Road," lowers the volume and production values. Sometimes an accordion seems like the warmest, most intimate-mood-setting instrument, impossible to resist. Here, the accordion transports us from a rock club to a cabaret, where a small ensemble concocts a classic pop-rock sound. "Everybody knows it's the end of the road," Kortes sings, the melody rising up just enough to let us celebrate what we'd normally bemoan. "It's all right / Nothing ever really stays the same in this world." To illustrate the point, cello enters unexpectedly at the end.
This pleasantly bittersweet atmosphere extends into "Sweeter Than True," which could be a more expressive Petula Clark covering Mary Hopkin's 1968 folk-pop hit "Those Were the Days." In addition to more accordion, we're treated to clarinet solos.
In case you're worried about ingesting too much saccharine, "Why Don't You Leave Him" introduces a dire vignette. An acoustic guitar lick evokes the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," and the woodsmoke sound of Rubber Soul (1965) complements the singer's evocation of "a dream world where love rules, and women are winning." Remember, however, that Rubber Soul ends with "Run for Your Life," where the male singer threatens violence against a "little girl" if he catches her with "another man." This song might be presenting that scenario from the woman's side. Concerned people promise her "shelter / And air to breathe in," but "he said he'd kill me / and I believe him." She has no easy way out.
In this darkness, "One More Sun" opens with a quasi-Indian drone that suggests the Beatles' shift from Rubber Soul to Revolver (1966). The music fades in like a sunrise, it's a new dawn, and good day sunshine: "Page by page the past will fold / And day by day I'm nearly whole." At the end, the rhythm builds like an engine revving up, with an electric spark from a hand hitting electric guitar strings. Once again, the details in the music echo the sentiments in the lyrics.
"Lick the Sunshine" then builds on what "One More Sun" just established. The electric guitar riff recalls the start of "Need for Religion," but now we know we're in steady hands, and the stuttering rhythm gives us more to sink into. As for the advice to "lick the sunshine from the leaves": It's the sort of thing (I've heard) you might be inclined to do during an acid trip.
In case your heart hasn't been broken by these songs yet, here comes "One Thousand Promises Later," a little tale of things not changing despite all the promises.
"Labor of Love" features big thumping drums. Imagine Led Zeppelin's John Bonham on "When the Levee Breaks" (1971) but totally different, like Bonzo powering a Beatlesque look at making love last. As the old joke goes, it's hard to make love last, so make it first. The struggle goes on, as the groove does at the end: little guitar lick drops out, funky bass drops out, drums continue solo until you feel you could, and just might, listen to them all day, then it's done.
On "If I Were You," we enter a cafe where French chanteuse Edith Piaf sings about a king who has lost his empire: "You wander dazed through the dust / Of the people who trusted you." A switch into waltz time signals the start of the singer's advice: "I'd carry the candlesticks / Down to where the daylight won't go... Learn from the truth / That's what I'd do / If I were you." As a kiss-off, it's a cousin to Dylan's venomous ones.
For "Love in Another Language," we remain in Europe for a folk song with '60's flourishes: "I'm going far away / Where nobody knows my name / I'll put on romantic accents / Disguise the pain / I love you is more beautiful / Goodbye won't hurt so bad / Making love in another language." Then in case things have grown too mellow, "Happy Birthday" delivers ringing-guitar power pop wherein the singer wishes herself a brand-new start with another year.
"Not getting any younger / And none too wise," the singer then explains in "In Another Lifetime." To my ears, this is the CD's least interesting song, but its placement is brilliant. The singer accepts things being not right in this lifetime, this world: "In another lifetime you might be / Everything you've led me to believe." The music treads water, as though the band's weary and saving energy for the CD's big finish. Meanwhile, this song's finale delivers a sign-off, a drum thump at end, like the click of a door as it closes.
So the last song, the big finish, is a Motörhead-style full-throttle rocker about... No, not quite. On "Lost Art," the singer laments a romance gone wrong: "What I'd give to feel again the way your hand was... When natural beauty fades you can't just wish it back." Kortes brings all her expressive powers to bear on this melancholy paean to loss. So if "In Another Lifetime" ends Kortes' play with the main character accepting what is, "Lost Art" brings the ensemble back to stand in a spotlight on an otherwise dark stage. They broaden the perspective. We're all invited to recall our own tender and vanished moments.
It's a perfect ending. There's not a dry eye in the house, and everyone's humming the tune.
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