Little Pink and Mary Prankster hail from the neighboring cities of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Md., respectively. Both fall loosely into the alternative country camp, though at different ends of the spectrum, and both closed out 2002 with strong, if short, CDs.
Mary Battiata’s 2001 debut as Little Pink, Cul-de-Sac Cowgirl, was on my very short list of favorite discs that I reviewed in 2002. She has another full-length CD in the works, but keeps her hand in with this four-song acoustic EP. On all four tracks, she plays rhythm guitar and is accompanied by just one other musician. Three songs were recorded live, the fourth in the studio with a near-live sound.
If this singer-songwriter has a trademark, it’s the sound of a broken heart being dissected with a steely gaze and steady hand. She also draws on a full bag of references without freighting her songs with too much art. The opening studio track, “12 Birds,” is a blue Christmas song, using a tree-full of familiar images and metaphors in new ways: “The ghosts of the past all gather round/and raise their glasses and drink you down.”
Of the three live tracks, one, “Neon Postcard,” is a reprise from Cowgirl. It fits well with “Bumblebee” and “Gone Over,” all of which are rife with images of the natural world that somehow heighten the singer’s sense of longing. My favorite of the three is “Bumblebee,” a slow, dreamy waltz-time song of the end of a love affair, in which she declares “We’re always lonesome in clouds of our kind.” The refrain of “Gone Over” delightfully meshes Sixties pop with old-time gospel.
Little Pink’s music is poignant but bracing, its characters weepy and yet clear-eyed, vulnerable survivors. 12 Birds whets the appetite for more to come.
(Adult Swim, 2002)
Tell Your Friends
Mary Prankster (is that a great stage name, or what?) comes on all tough-girl bluster, in their third CD. Tell Your Friends is a 10-song collection that throws cowpunk, girl-group pop, and twanging honky-tonk into the blender and serves up a beer to cry in. The Baltimore-based power trio, which goes by the stage-name of the lead singer and guitar-slinger, is produced by Mitch Easter (producer for several big rock acts), and has opened for acts as diverse as They Might Be Giants and Dick Dale.
After a short intro of ominous rumbling noise, “Brave New Baby” kicks things off with slashing guitars and a fast punk beat. As in all these songs, though, the vocals are way out front, so you don’t miss any of Mary’s literate, nerd-rock lyrics, referencing everything from “Fahrenheit 451” to big-band swing. “La Resistance” continues in a similar vein, her voice alternately husky come-on and punk screech. Here she sings “I love you baby, I just love me even more” and other post-feminist lyrics over a guitars that alternately shimmer and crunch.
There are two versions of the title track. “Part I” is all Shondells riffs behind girl-group pop vocals, with a little glockenspeil on the side; “Part Deux” is chugging mid-tempo Nineties alt-rock. Both feature the same punk-rock refrain, “You can tell your friends that I’ve changed…”
Surprise, here are a couple of acoustic ballads in the middle of the album. “Irresponsible Woman” is a piano-driven lounge number, a plucky kiss-off song full of musical and lyrical hooks and a big horn workout in the middle. “Arm’s Length” has the sound of early Neil Young and lyrics like “Tumbleweed”-era Elton John. And “Spill” is a stutter-step bit of cantina pop, complete with bongos and a guitar that chimes like an organ.
The closer, “Darlin’,” is a straight-up honky-tonk waltz, with Mary’s husky vocals nearly alone over just her acoustic guitar, Jon E. Cakes’ bass and Phil Tang’s rattle-trap drums, plus some horns way off in the distance on the middle-eight. It’s a lovely, dusty song of sad love lost, until in the last verse you realize she has a gun, which gives a whole new weight to the question, “Did ya care, my darlin’/ do ya now?” Tell Your Friends is great fun all the way.
Two bands, two Marys, two different approaches to alt-country, both using literate lyrics and engaging melodies. Both winners in my book.
(Palace Coup, 2002)