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[music, albums]

II: 1988 Mary Margaret O'Hara - Miss America

Mary Margaret O'Hara - Miss America
Mary Margaret O'Hara's Miss America is one of those albums I discovered by pure accident. I think it was January 1989 and I was in the huge media store Saturn Hansa near the Theresienwiese where the Oktoberfest takes place in Munich. Lou Reed's New York album was advertised everywhere and I don't remember what I was looking for. The music they played immediately caught my attention. Or more precisely the woman singing on that record. I asked what it was and bought the vinyl (I didn't have a cd player and I don't think it was available on cd anyway) instantly. It was love at first sight. An experience I find very hard to describe.

The music was somewhere in between jazz, classical improvisation, country and God knows what. As I would have liked Joni Mitchell who had already turned into a boring mainstream pop-rock imitator to be. Mary Margaret O'Hara's voice was a girl's voice similar to Rickie Lee Jones's though less so. O'Hara's way of singing is (sorry I have to change the tense now) absolutely unique. It is all about the intonation, the melody of the phrasing, the strange breaks and drawls in the pronunciation of the syllables. She cuts and breaks them and gives them an individual sound like few other singers. If you really want a reference point the only one in terms of emotion I can offer is Billie Holiday. Though it is obvious that O'Hara is a trained singer she transports a sincerity and expressiveness few singers ever matched till then. Substract the exaggerated opera timbre of Jeff Buckley and you will get close to her.

Not only her voice is absolutely stunning but also the words she sings. It all starts with:

You take a walk
I'll be your side
You take my life
I'll give you mine
And you ... you give me something
To cry about

and it goes on

You're in my heart
I'm in your hand
You drop me off
I miss you and ... you,
You give me something
To cry about

That is so to the point that it hurts.

Not all songs are as depressive as the first one. There is the seemingly relaxed countryesque Dear Darling which goes

Why would you run?
I beg stars above
A thing of such beauty
Must be called love

which is followed by the swinging almost groovy hopeful Anew Day. The next quite sombre song When You Know Why You're Happy really speaks to me (I am 1.95 meters = 6 feet 5 tall)

You move much better than you know
Not just some jerky to and fro

Musically my favourite song on the album is the first track on side 2, the upbeat My Friends Have. It goes on with the downbeat rather sad Help Me Lift You Up where she sings

I don't have to tell you
That you're all alone...
I have a dream
It's very clear
You're all around
But never near
Help me lift you up

Keeping You in Mind is a relaxed serene ballad without illusions:

But if our love is all for not
I'm still happy with what I've got
Not having you,
But keeping you in mind

After a long free flowing song the album ends with the almost a cappella (bass & her voice) You Will Be Loved Again where O'Hara exhibits all her vocal capabilities:

Sometime you will
Feel love so deep
And you'll find someone
Not lost in sleep

Sorry that I wasn't able to give you any clue about this album. I guess you have to listen to it yourself.

The new cover has changed colours. The beige yellow has turned into black and the black scripting changed into blue. Obviously this was not for the better. I also noticed that I have to rethink my approach concerning recording years as this album was recorded in 1984 which wouldn't make any sense in this exercise. Therefore I will consider release years in 40 years, 40 albums from now on.

By the way Mary Margaret O'Hara has released her second album this year, the soundtrack Apartment Hunting.


You might think that I am totally nuts

writing most of the comments to my postings myself. You are probably right. But I have another reason than just making my blog seem busier than it actually is. I prefer to write a comment than to change the original post when new info has arrived and has been processed in my shrinking brain matter. In this way new relevant ideas and links to already existing posts appear on their own in the recently modified list on your right, they are easy to find and they stay together with the post they belong to. Enough meta now.

Yesterday before relistening to Miss America I had this one word in my mind to which I wanted to compare the voice and singing of Mary Margaret O'Hara. Strangely enough after having listened I forgot about it or didn't find it appropriate anymore. Now that I haven't listened to the album for more than twelve hours the word comes up again.

It is quicksand. In hindsight it suddenly makes sense again. Three aspects of quicksand fit to O'Hara's voice.

  • It is effervescent
  • It radiates a certain insecurity
  • Her intonation has an almost liquid flow

She sings her lyrics in a way that they become hers a second time. One might think that she stutters when listening superficially but that is totally wrong. She cuts a word like song (as in Year in Song) into two syllables. First she utters the hissing "s" then she pauses and sings the whole word. And it doesn't sound forced at all. Paradoxically it somehow flows smoothly.

Another take on this: as a listener I feel like being in quicksand as well. I get lost in her voice. I have to listen to it again and again. To really find out the details of her way of singing.

More info on the album here at the AMG.

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Further reading

on M2OH:

The Uniquely Talented Mary Margaret O'Hara based on an interview Christopher Jones had with her. Especially interesting is the part on the traumatic recording which seems to be responsible for the long silence that followed:

Yes, the executives at Virgin U.K. were hard on O'Hara, shelving her work for months that stretched into years. But the players on those sessions also rebelled. O'Hara uses the word "abusive" to describe the way some of the musicians reacted to her studio directions. "Later they'd be so sorry, but by then it had worked its way into me," she says.

Also noteworthy is this:
"The label wanted all the slow tracks," she says. There were supposed to be six other tracks on there that were much more polyrhythmic and active, and the company didn't want them.

Mary Margaret O'Hara in Ecstasy by Kurt Wildermuth (May 2002) who even compares her to my favourite album of 1972 which I just picked one week ago. That is really weird. I would never have thought of linking those two but somehow it makes sense:

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.

Though I must add that I don't endorse the author's bonmot about Roxy Music "saying nothing stylishly". As I wrote in my review of their first album before I don't think that it really is about glam or style. That is just the surface, the package.

I got those links via Nigel Richardson from his post on M2OH at Blogcritics: How to write about an album you don't have yet.

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last updated: 2/23/21 8:55 AM
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