Mary Lee's Corvette
In 2002, Mary Lee's Corvette scored a surprise hit with Blood on the Tracks, a typically fearless song-for-song reinterpretation of Bob Dylan's 1975 classic of the same name. While the Dylan-inspired disc helped to substantially expand Mary Lee's Corvette's audience, longtime observers recognized the irony, since it's the artfully crafted, deeply felt original compositions of Mary Lee Kortes-MLC's founder, lead singer and sole charter member-that have long been the band's calling card.
Listeners only familiar with Mary Lee's Corvette via Blood on the Tracks will be pleasantly surprised by the emotional depth and melodic mastery of the group's new Bar/None release 700 Miles. In her liner notes, Mary Lee calls the 12-track collection "an album about journey, transformation and freedom-the freedom to be who you really are." Indeed, Kortes' new songs survey thorny emotional territory with depth and nuance, as well as a classic pop sensibility that lends buoyancy to her lyrics' darker insights.
Such deeply personal yet effortlessly accessible tunes as "The Nothing Song," "Out from Under It," "More Stupider" and "Give It to the Needy" consistently mine a vibrant balance of sweetness, melancholy and humor, simultaneously embodying a sophisticated urban sensibility and folk music's organic storytelling tradition. The latter element is underlined by Kortes' impassioned reading of Townes Van Zandt's classic ballad "No Place to Fall."
Mary Lee Kortes' gifts as singer and songwriter were first revealed on her first two independent releases, Mary Lee's Corvette (1998) and True Lovers of Adventure (1999). Those discs' distinctive bend of substance and songcraft that won her a loyal live audience, first on New York's downtown club scene and subsequently throughout a touring base that's grown to encompass Europe. Early on, she won numerous well-placed press admirers, including Billboard's late editor in chief, Timothy White, and Rolling Stone's David Fricke, who wrote that "The bright bite in Mary Lee Kortes' voice (has) the high-mountain sunshine of Dolly Parton, with a sweet-iron undercoat of Chrissie Hynde." She also found support from cutting-edge radio stations like WXPN and WFMU, where listeners instantly responded with enthusiastic call-ins whenever her songs were played.
Kortes originally released Blood on the Tracks-recorded live during a one-off gig at the East Village club Arlene Grocery-as a limited-edition labor of love on her own Leonora label, hoping to sell a few copies on her website and at live shows. But word about the project quickly spread across the internet and in Dylan fan circles. The album became a genuine grass-roots phenomenon, leading Bar/None to step in and it a wider release, further raising her media profile and building anticipation for her next album of original material.
700 Miles' recording process was a journey of self-discovery, much like those depicted in Kortes' songs. She recorded the bulk of the album with producer and real-life husband Eric "Roscoe" Ambel at his Brooklyn studio, Cowboy Technical Services, with frequent Corvette cohorts guitarist Andy York (guitar), Brad Albetta (bass), Joe Chiafalo (accordion), and Graham Hawthorne (drums), as well as additional guitar work from Dan Petty, Kevin Salem, and Rod Hohl. But the project's birth cycle really began much earlier, in Mary Lee's East Village apartment.
As she explains, "I had a batch of songs, but then Eric got hired as Steve Earle's guitar player, and I fell into a bit of a panic over how and when I was going to make my next record with Eric away on tour." The absence of her studio-vet partner forced Mary Lee to take the bull by the horns and assume more of a hands-on role. Learning her way around her Roland VS-1680 digital porta-studio, she began demoing her new songs and experimenting with various sonic ideas. The experimentation opened new creative horizons that are reflected in 700 Miles' broader sonic pallette.
"Once I got the basics of the Roland in my brain, I discovered my inner mad scientist. I started loving the process-recording when I was in the mood, adding a stroke of percussion here, a string line there. I started playing these recordings for people, and got a fantastic response. When Eric got home, we decided to use these recordings as the basis for the record. Then we went into the studio with the band to add bass, drums, guitars, real strings, etc. I think the result is a record which, for better or worse, has a lot more of me on it."
The solitary home-studio environment was well-suited to the intimacy of 700 Miles' songs, which resonate with the private trials, small victories and random strangeness of real life. For example, the poignant title track was inspired by the fascinatingly precise diaries kept by the artist's late grandmother-excerpts of which are included in the CD package's liner notes. Meanwhile, she explains that the album's opening number, "The Nothing Song," "came about after I experienced a severe case of envy so painful that all I could think was 'I just wish I didn't want anything at all.' I wrote it in the middle of the night, laying in bed; it pretty much unfolded completely while I was half-awake."
Kortes also names 700 Miles' penultimate track, "Portland, Michigan"-whose plainspoken yet richly detailed narrative underlines the artist's spiritual ties to the folk tradition-as a personal favorite. "It's about a girl who grows up in a small town, survives some fairly severe family trauma, and escapes to the city. But she realizes she's inextricably bound to her roots no matter where she goes, and that that temptation to go back and try to get it right is always going to be there."
The song's themes are particularly appropriate for Mary Lee, who says, "I've been a writer since I was a kid, writing songs and poetry. And I'd always had music in my family, so it was always something I turned to for comfort and self-expression and fun."
After growing up in Whitefish, Montana and spending a few years moving around the midwest with her family, Kortes moved to Manhattan with the intention of pursuing a career as a book editor. Although music had been in her blood for much of her life, she initially didn't regard it a realistic career option. Yet, before long, Mary Lee found steady work as a session vocalist, and found her talents as a tunesmith in demand. Amy Grant scored a hit with her composition "Everywhere I Go," while she was enlisted to lend backing vocals to such notable albums as Freedy Johnston's Never Home, Laura Cantrell's Not the Tremblin' Kind and When the Roses Bloom Again, and the Blood Oranges' alt-country cult classic The Crying Tree.
Her recent success have allowed Mary Lee to continue exploring new creative horizons. For instance, she's written a short piece of fiction for Storyteller, a forthcoming collection from Avalon Books that also features contributions from fellow singer/songwriters Ray Davies, Joan Jett and Lou Reed. And Mary Lee and band recently shot a musical appearance in the forthcoming Anthony LaPaglia/Eric Stoltz film Happy Hour.
"As vague as it probably sounds, I'm always trying to find something new in myself, some new motivation or angle on making music," Kortes states, adding, "I believe in the power of the unconscious for true inspiration. If it doesn't knock down your door and say, 'You must write me, you must sing me,' then maybe you should just leave it alone."
Blood on the Tracks
Your eyes do not deceive you. And your doubts won't last. This is a complete re-creation of Bob Dylan's untouchable 1975 divorce album. Executed with a quaintly direct magnificence enhanced by the modesty of its origins (a one-time 2001 New York club show rescued from a soundboard cassette and eclipsed only by Dylan's definitive recording. There is a savory Blonde on Blonde air to the organ and piano coursing through the band's faithful acoustic picking, while the bright bite in Mary Lee Kortes' voice-the high-mountain sunshine of Dolly Parton, with a sweet iron undercoat of Chrissie Hynde- turns up the female hurt and fight in "Tangled Up In Blue" and "You're A Big Girl Now." The ultimate compliment; Dylan likes this album so much he has featured one of the tracks on his website.
-David Fricke, Rolling Stone Oct 3, 2002 (4 Stars)
When Mary Lee Kortes cut live-to-two-track debut disc, Mary Lee's Corvette, in 1997, she had only planned to create something homegrown to sell at gigs. But some key taste-makers thought otherwise. Timothy White, editor-in-chief of Billboard, declared it one of the Top Ten albums of the year. WFMU deejay The Hound called Mary Lee "the 21st Century version of Hal David, Burt Bacharach, and Dionne Warwick wrapped up in one svelte package." When music director Bruce Warren of influential National Public Radio station WXPN in Philadelphia decided to play a few cuts, the response from listeners was instantaneous, as they called in to demand, "Where can we find this record?"
That's the same question internet-savvy fans put to Mary Lee after she and her band, Mary Lee's Corvette, put on a one-evening-only rendition of Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks in its entirety last fall. This was going to be her contribution to a series of "classic album nights" that various local bands had participated in at Arlene's Grocery on Manhattan's Lower East Side, events that were more than just sets of casual covers, but carefully constructed performances of cover albums. She admits that she readily agreed to the gig - and then the magnitude of the enterprise hit her.
Mary Lee never intended to put out the results of that sometimes scary, ultimately exhilarating undertaking on a CD. In fact, as she explains in the liner notes she wrote, Mary Lee wasn't even sure she really wanted to go through with the gig once she started rehearsing for it. But she couldn't really back down from such a challenge. Mary Lee rose to the occasion so memorably that fans who weren't there clamored for a chance to hear what she'd done. Those who were wanted to hear it again. Luckily, there was a tape rolling during the entire gig.
As Mary Lee puts it in her liner notes, "I burned some CDs at home and sent one to Vin Scelsa, one to Billboard magazine, and one to Dylancoveralbums.com. Then one morning I turned on my computer, went online, and had requests from Sweden, Germany, and California for copies of this 'record.' And they kept coming."
The Mary Lee's Corvette version of Blood on the Tracks is more an exploration than a mere tribute to what was arguably the best of Bob Dylan's recordings from the seventies. Dylan had written riveting, action-packed, story songs, bittersweet romantic travelogues that took his weather-beaten but still yearning characters from New Orleans to Tangiers, from memory to reality, from uncertainty to epiphany. The songs are full of dramatic twists and turns, and stuffed with words, all of them evocative. Faced with the daunting task of recreating this remarkable album track by track on stage, Mary Lee explains, "These questions immediately presented themselves: How do you sing a Bob Dylan song in a way that anyone should ever bother listening to? How do you sing it right without imitating him? How do you make it your own? And, of course, why should you?"
During that late, rainy night on Stanton Street, Mary Lee found her answers - and a way to honor Dylan's artistry while injecting a significant part of herself into the mix. As she writes, "It's a gift to sing these songs, pure and simple." Accompanying her were Andy York on guitar, harmonica, and occasional background vocals; Rod Hohl on acoustic guitar; Brad Albetta on bass; Andy Burton on piano and organ; and Diego Voglino on drums. Midway through the set, she asked if any audience member wanted to have a go at a few of the many verses of "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts." The guy who was brave enough to join her --- whose name Mary Lee never quite caught -- was game, but all he could really bring to the epic song, besides a remarkable retention of the words, was a kind of comic relief midway through the show. It becomes clear at that point how much focus, intensity, and, most importantly, soulfulness Mary Lee brought to her performance.
Bob Dylan first made his mark in the Greenwich Village folk clubs along Bleecker Street that thrived there during the mid-sixties. Mary Lee found her own niche a little farther east on the Lower East Side. Her real-life roots, however, remain way west, in Whitefish, Montana, where she was raised, the daughter of a drive-in movie theater operator. It was there that she first discovered how well her voice and a guitar went together: "I met this guy playing guitar behind the high school and this voice popped out of me like a disembodied spirit. And it just won't stop."
Although she sang with a variety of bands in the west and the Midwest, she wasn't convinced she'd remain a musician when she finally hit the big city. She figured she'd become a book editor. But her fellow musicians, along with other fans, weren't about to let that happen. Early on, Amy Grant cut a version of Mary Lee's "Everywhere I Go" and it went Top 40 on the Adult Contemporary charts. Freedy Johnston invited Mary Lee to sing back-up with him in the studio. And she began to build a fan base of her own as a singer-songwriter.
When she released her second album, True Lovers of Adventure, in 1999, USA Today declared, "The songs reveal a wide-ranging musical intelligence matched by smart lyrics." Dan Aquilante of the New York Post asserted, "Newcomer Mary Lee Kortes, front woman for Mary Lee's Corvette, has one of the most compelling voices in modern rock." Entertainment Weekly praised her "lovely, nuanced voice and deft storytelling."
Fans can rest assured that there's more of Mary Lee's own material to look forward to: this summer she'll start to record a new batch of already stellar songs she's been road-testing over the last year. And the many who regret missing the original Blood on the Tracks event will have the chance to hear those songs live once again. Mary Lee has already made plans to reprise the entire set on tour this summer. But there's no need to wait for her to come to your town - though you can almost be guaranteed she will -- because all the emotion, excitement, and inventiveness of that one-night stand are available right now on this CD.