Twice-Told Tales
by Keith Harris, City Pages


Let's face it--most songwriters are just frustrated rock critics. Incapable of articulating the deeper meaning of the music that moves them in a language that can move others, they blow the dust off guitars they once abandoned as feckless undergraduates and slump into composing tuneful imitations of their idols' superior work. And then they parade the results as self-expression, as if it's nobler to create mediocre art than to create no art at all.
Minneapolis singer/songwriter Marlee MacLeod was actually a pretty good rock critic in her day. Her past work for Cake and No Depression evidenced a sharp ear for nuance, both musical and emotional. And it still rings with the near-improvisatory sense of discovery that marks the best arts criticism. MacLeod hasn't abandoned the computer for guitar entirely--she currently drafts true crime pieces for an online repository of bloody outlaw narratives called the Crime Library (www.crimelibrary.com). But MacLeod's an even sharper songwriter than she is a journalist, and the verbal strengths she draws upon are only part of her appeal.


"She swung at his heart like it was a pinata/And the blindfold made her aim that much truer," is a hell of a line to kick off a record. But in the case of MacLeod's fourth album, There We Are (Hayden's Ferry), it's a misleading one as well. MacLeod doesn't often go in here for such sweeping imagery, kicking back instead on pithy little twists on common phrases such as, "Hanging like a steeplejack/On your every word" or "What a lot of you-know-what-I-mean under the bridge." Though she claims, "I love your abstract more/Than your actuality," she generally traffics in actualities, in the concrete language of the specific instance.


Such verbal dexterity could relegate a songwriter like MacLeod to the pit where sensitive fiction writers go to share their rote subleties and quivering sentiments. But singers have one certain advantage over their page-bound kin--a physical control over the inflection of their language--and MacLeod is one canny vocalist. While not quite harsh, her drawl is far from soothing. What makes her delivery most distinctive is the ruminative distance she keeps from the emotional snags she encounters--this without sounding aloof. It's a distance that protects her from the floridity or kewpie folksiness that afflicts so many acoustic songpoets.


Live, MacLeod accompanies herself sharply on acoustic guitar, with the beat and texture of her strum implying the riffs and rhythms that are fleshed out on disc. She's again working with producer John Fields, but where her last, 1997 disc Vertigo cast spiky squiggles of riffage into hectic patterns, MacLeod's latest is more plainspoken. It's rootsier, but with an austerity that prunes away the kudzu of her No D. kinfolk.


Finding the resonance in a songwriting vernacular rather than burrowing into one's supposedly "unique" experiences is a worthy challenge. When she transforms an unadorned phrase like "I know better than to break your heart" into an understated expression of regret, only fools who mistake rampant intensity for authentic feeling could yawn. MacLeod has heard these familiar tropes of lost and found love and other such foolishness before, and now that they've come to affect her, she can't help commenting upon them, unraveling them, figuring and refiguring how they apply.


Every decent songwriter realizes early on that what they've felt has been felt before, and it's all been registered in songs everyone knows by heart. Many try to circumvent this wall, leading to the gimmickry of Beck's hip-hop bricolage or to Chan Marshall's dreary set of deconstructed covers. MacLeod takes the harder track, mapping the intersection between the nearly worn-out figures of speech at her disposal and the way she feels today. Which is just what the best songwriters--and the best rock critics--have always done.

 



Country's Happy Alternative
by Buzz McClain


Special to The Washington Post
The alternative country music genre is nothing if not gender blind. Tish Hinojosa, Stacey Earle, Christy McWilson, Allison Moorer, Donna the Buffalo (fronted by Tara Nevins), Valerie Smith and Kimmie Rhodes were all riding the Top 40 Americana album chart at one point this month, which means the dozens of radio stations across the country that report to the chart were playing songs from their discs in regular rotation.Add to that list others who are between new records--Lucinda Williams, Rhonda Vincent, Heather Myles, Anna Fermin, Kelly Willis, Sara Evans, Gillian Welch, Rosie Flores, D.C.'s own Ruthie and the Wranglers, and countless other established artists--and you've just discovered where many of the creative female singer-songwriters have gone. But far from being marginalized, these women proudly play their guitars and sing their songs among the alt-country men, making the genre ceaselessly vibrant and constantly surprising.

Marlee MacLeod
Case in point: Marlee MacLeod is an Alabama native living in Minneapolis who follows in the footsteps of the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde as a rock critic turned singer-songwriter. She now writes about true crime when not penning lyrics about reluctant romance and breaking men's hearts.MacLeod's fourth album, There We Are (Hayden's Ferry Records), kicks off with "Cautionary Tale," which opens with a furious country-rock lick reminiscent of Jason and the Scorchers--and at this point it's important to know MacLeod is playing that thrilling electric guitar. An organ joins the bass and drums, and after letting the ringing tone of the song settle in for a bit, she begins singing, rising higher, "She swung at his heart like it was a pinata, until she got what she wanted/ And the blindfold made her aim that much truer."Not only does this line set the poetic tone for the lyrical imagery to come, but it's sung with a voice for which it is impossible to find a suitable comparison. Confident, honest and wonderfully sonorous, MacLeod's distinctive mature tenor is all the more memorable thanks to an Alabama accent that can successfully rhyme "heart" with "repertoire," as she does on the acoustic ballad "Better Than."Very little is predictable here, not in the lyrical content, not in the melodies and certainly not in the pop hooks, of which there are many. One of the catchiest tunes is "Such a Hammer," a crunchy power-chord number accented with a couple of Flying Burrito Brothers-like pedal steel breaks by Eric Lewis; but the hook of the song is the ominous darkening of the vocals on the words "such a hammer gotta fall" at the end of the repeated chorus. Chilling, and galvanizing.



Marlee MacLeod, Drive Too Fast and
Favorite Ball and Chain, Medium Cool Records

by Tom Hallett, Squealer


Great songsmiths and great authors have more than a few things in common. They've usually had enough of a life behind them to come off with some degree of authenticity, they have the natural ability to talk to (not at) their audience, and, most importantly, they draw you into a tale until it's no longer a story but rather an experience you carry with you like one of your own memories. Twin Cities transplant (via Alabama and Georgia) Marlee MacLeod's Peter Jesperson -produced debut release, Drive Too Fast, reads like a collection of all-American novellas you grimly accepted as required reading in college and then read and reread until the cover fell off and its smudged and stained pages were rubbed as soft and fuzzy as a sheet of dryer lint.While I hesitate to analyze this record by its title and cover art (a 50s pink Dodge with sleek tail fins and a license plate that reads MED COOL) or the picture on the cd (a speedometer clocked in at a smooth 115 mph), it doesn't take much imagination to feel the telephone poles swishing by as the first track, "Lie To Me" glides in on a twang and a prayer. The title track is obvious, but belies its own message at a slow, crafty pace. "Waltz Across Texas" (featuring ex-Mat Slim Dunlap) is a brittle pick-fest with a shit-kicker beat and "Que Sera Sera" attitude, and "Hurricane Man" sends down-South braggadocio ripping through Midwestern sentimentality like a special effect from Twister. The should-be radio single "Maybe If I" would fit snugly on any alterna-playlist between Jennifer Trynin and Ani DiFranco, and if the suits in Trashville, Tennessee had any brains at all, "Under the Sun" would be all over the yokel airwaves. It's a good thing this is a cd because I have a feeling if it was on vinyl, it wouldn't be long before the grooves wore down and the jacket became as disheveled and dog-eared as my copy of Greil Marcus' Mystery Train.Ms. MacLeod's second and latest release, Favorite Ball and Chain (produced by John "Strawberry" Fields), proves to be a logical progression on her perpetual road trip of the heart, albeit after a few detours through some places not quite as wholesome as the rural routes and backroads of Drive Too Fast. The self-confidence and honest bitterness running through this record are no less of a sensation than a hard slug in the gut and serve to cement Marlee's sometimes (seemingly) reluctant foray into the glutted 90s pop arena as an admirable and respected contender for any of her overplayed peers. A dependable and almost warm bottom end provided by bassist Rob Veal and drummer John Crist (of the highly underrated Dashboard Saviors) adds chunky life to these sweetly crooned pearls of wisdom and heartache and a smattering of assorted instruments like mandolin, viola, dulcimer, and Wurlitzer tops them off with just a hint of spice."Las Vegas," the opener, is a bouncy jangler dripping with black humor, combining an absolutely unforgettable guitar riff with the resignation of lyrics like, "Of all the god-forsaken places, why'd you have to end up in Las Vegas?" made all the more poignant by the realization that the singer is actually griping at a friend who wanted to be buried in Las Vegas. ("You could spend eternity on your ex-husband's mantelpiece / you could go the desert route with all the other nuclear fallout...") "Nothing Up My Sleeve" is a hypnotic piece of pop-folklore, the kind sung outta the side of your mouth with yer tongue in cheek, and "Nobody To Me"--besides being the most oft-played song on my stereo last month--is one of the smartest, most spiteful and deserved slap in the face to an indie sellout since Mary Lou Lord's "His Indie World," and a far better tune. It should be played on headphones to every bloated, Alanis Morrisette's-ass-kissing radio programmer in America while they sleep, dreaming smugly of the thousands of teen spirits buying the latest flavor at Wal-Mart with dad's Visa Gold. ("A sweetheart to your lawyer, baby to the Rolling Stone, you're nobody to me...")As cliched as it may sound, there's no place for Marlee MacLeod to go but up, and as for me, well...if music is my prison of choice, then I guess I've found my Favorite Ball and Chain.

 


Vertigo and the Fall of a Cynic:
Marlee MacLeod Takes the Plung
e


by Bill Snyder, Pulse Magazine
"You know what, I have a theory," says Marlee MacLeod, as I nearly spit out my first cup of coffee. "There were the people who had their best years early on, and there were the stunted among us who had a lot of emotional development to do back then, and we're going to have our heyday in our thirties. I'm really looking forward to that because I always felt that I was in remedial classes just through general living, and I feel like I'm kind of coming into my own being over thirty. I think a lot of people are that way." No, I usually don't have a problem drinking coffee. It's just that seeing words of optimism leave the lips of Minneapolis' beloved musical cynic is a bit jolting. Remember, this is the woman who once named an album Favorite Ball and Chain. Yet MacLeod's new album, Vertigo (released yesterday on TRG) marks a newfound optimism for the Alabama native. Most striking is her inclusion of love songs (a first), but it does not stop there. Her current release is yet another step away from the country sounds of her 1993 debut, Drive Too Fast. Sure, her Southern twang will always give a hint of country, but this album lands somewhere in the pop zone between the Top 40 she grew up with and the mid-80's college radio station where she worked.Whether singing about unhealthy relationships under the guise of a spy story ("Mata Hari Dress") or a fictional ride on the F train with Shelley Winters, MacLeod weaves some strange, unconventional tales. But really, now. Shelley Winters on the subway?

"When Favorite Ball and Chain came out, I went on a huge tour," says MacLeod. "I was in New York City. I was by myself and I was having a horrible day. The doorman at the club was telling me I was lying about how much I was supposed to get paid. I think it was a misunderstanding. I don't think he was trying to be malicious about it. I was tired and I started to cry right in front of him. All I could do was wander about two blocks in each direction, because I didn't know where it was safe to walk."Around that time, I had been reading Shelley Winters' two volumes of autobiography, and she sounded like a broad who could really handle a day like I was having. I got on the subway, the F train, to go back to Brooklyn where I was staying with Kevin Salem, and it just came to me, 'What would happen if Shelley Winters got on the F train and asked me what was wrong?' That's where the song came from."

As for the newfound optimism?"Well, I think for one thing, I have been in love for the past couple of years, and for another thing, my outlook has gotten a little more optimistic, which makes it easier to write that kind of song...when you've gotten used to being one way about things, and people and critics have always picked up on that--my dark view of everything, my cynicism--and all of a sudden I'm not quite so much that way. It was a change. I had to get used to it."Still , one thing remains clear: the woman rocks. MacLeod is a powerful and unyielding live performer, who demolishes Juliana Hatfield's theory of women being genetically unable to play lead guitar (she's also recently added Dashboard Saviors drummer John Crist to her band).


Playing live has been a good teacher for MacLeod. "I had no idea when I first started making music, that in addition to learning all about music, I would also learn (through music) a lot of those life lessons that I didn't seem to pick up in those remedial life classes. I would learn patience and tolerance and compassion, and how to deal with all kinds of people, professionalism, how to be good to somebody who has come to see me even when I'm having the worst day I've ever had. All those things that are really important in life, I've learned from this job. I hadn't expected that, but it's really true."


Americana Sound
by Karl Leslie, St. Cloud Times, 7/00


Marlee MacLeod is one of the most underrated singer/songwriters in Minnesota. The first time I heard her, she was on stage with the now-defunct Dashboard Saviors at the Red Carpet. And she blew me away. Seven or eight years have passed since then, and MacLeod now has released her fourth solo album, There We Are.MacLeod has once again assembled a talented cast. She's signed with a promising young label, Hayden's Ferry Records out of Tempe, Arizona. She brought back local producer John Fields for the third album in a row. And, she's recruited some talented musicians, including the likes of Honeydogs drummer Noah Levy.As for the music, MacLeod dives right in. She rips through "Cautionary Tale," "Then Again," and "Ride" before even coming up for air. After one short breath, she's back at it for "Walk You Home" and "Ever After" before allowing things to slow down.There We Are has some near-perfect Americana pop moments delivered with MacLeod's naturally countrified voice. You simply have to check out the hand clapping "Cautionary Tale" and the wonderful pop melody and contagious guitar hooks of the two-minute, 38-second "Autherine."But as you would expect, MacLeod's true strength lies in her lyrics. And the album is just oozing with them. On "Ride," MacLeod sings, "I'm not scared of getting lost, it's the getting found I dread. And the opening line on "Ever After" feeds the imagination with "I read you like a dirty book." Other tracks to check out include "Such a Hammer," "You Already Know," and "Then Again."