Friday, April 20, 2007

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: THE RETURN OF MARY WEISS

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
April 20, 2007

Hers was the voice of teenage tragedy.

As lead singer of the last great “girl group,” the Shangri-Las, Mary Weiss sang of star-crossed high-school love, fatal motorcycle crashes, and parents who die of broken hearts over their wayward daughters.

Was this the last era in which so much human drama haunted the Top 40? The very titles hint at the tragedy in the lyrics: “Give Us Your Blessings,” “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” (Thomas Wolfe reincarnated as a girl from Queens?), and, of course, the group’s biggest hit, the one with the revving, then crashing, motorcycle — the greatest teenage death song since “Teen Angel” and “Tell Laura I Love Her” — “Leader of the Pack.”

Even the songs in which nobody died took on Wagnerian overtones. The Shangri-Las first hit, “Remember (Walking in the Sand),” sounded as if the Universe was about to break into tears as the youthful Weiss sang before the chorus, “Oh no! Oh no! Oh no no no no no!”

But the Shangri-Las also presented a world of joyful, forbidden teenage lust, songs about falling for boys in black leather, with dirty fingernails — and gossiping about it with the girls. Between verses of “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” the girls sang, “Tell me more, tell me more.”

It was hard not to love them. Especially if you were a male teen (or preteen) back in the mid-1960s. I actually got to see the Shangri-Las in Oklahoma City, circa 1965, as a part of a package show with The Dave Clark Five. I fell totally in lust with Weiss, as well as with the other members, twin sisters Marge and Mary Ann Ganser. (A fourth member, Mary’s sister Liz, didn’t always perform with the group.)

Not long afterward, the Shangri-Las rode off into history. (Look out! Look out! Look out!).

Changing musical tastes, record-company weirdness, and litigation (have I mentioned lately how much I hate the music industry?) made sure they could never go home anymore. Both the Gansers died, one in the 1970s; one in the 1990s. “Leader of the Pack” became campy nostalgia and the group fell into obscurity.

Weiss moved on. Except for a couple of attempted comebacks, she gave up on music.

Until now.

Earlier this year, Norton Records released her first solo album, Dangerous Game. Backed by a cool Memphis band called the Reigning Sound, Weiss sings now not as an overly dramatic teen, but as an adult. She’s older and wiser, and her voice has deepened. But in it you can hear the heart of the girl who sang “Out in the Streets.”

And it’s that heart that carries this album. “My Heart is Beating” is the title of the irresistible opening cut. Here, she’s contemplating taking back an errant lover. Should we take that as a metaphor for her audience? “If I take you back, I wanna know you’ll be good to me,” she sings.

But perhaps she’s answering herself on a later song. “I don’t care if you ever come back now,” goes the refrain of “I Don’t Care.” The funniest moment on the album is the last verse here, “And that guy who’s on my couch, he just helped me figure out that I don’t care.”

Another “heart” song, “Break It One More Time,” is one of the most unforgettable tunes. With the band providing a nice, minimalist backdrop (prominent piano and organ by Dave Amels, and understated guitar by the Reigning Sound’s Greg Cartwright, who wrote most of the songs) it’s a timeless sound that contains a few echoes from the ’50s and ’60s, but might remind some listeners of early Springsteen.

Only a couple of songs here have hints of nostalgia. With its minor-chord melody, “I Just Missed You,” one of my favorites, sounds similar to “Remember (Walking in the Sand).” “Cry About the Radio” is a lament about the current state of the medium that made Weiss a teenage star. She even uses a word in the first verse that will guarantee the song won’t get played on commercial radio.

Dangerous Game is like a sweet letter from a long lost friend. It’s also got to be the comeback album of this young century.

For a great interview with Weiss, CLICK HERE.

Also recommended:

*Tied & True
by The Detroit Cobras. Detroit is in their name, but in the latest album (scheduled for release Tuesday, April 24), the band’s got a lot of Memphis in it. In fact, two members of the Reigning Sound — Greg Cartwright and bassist Carol Shumaker — are listed as Cobra members in the credits here.

Fronted by singer Rachel Nagy and guitarist Mary Ramirez, the Cobras pride themselves as being a “covers” band. They perform lots of early rock, R & B, and soul tunes — mostly obscure or at least lesser-known ones. Highlights here include a tough take on “(I Wanna Know) What’s Going On” (co-written by Dr. John), a stormy “Puppet on a String” (not the Elvis song), and a rocking version of Leadbelly’s “On a Monday” (a song that inspired Johnny Cash’s “I Got Stripes”).

This might be the most slickly produced Cobras album yet. With smooth tunes like “The Hurt’s All Gone,” you might wonder how they were ever known as a garage band. But with wild, raw tunes like “Green Light,” you know these Cobras still bite.


*Dismissed With a Kiss by Spanking Charlene. This New York group is never going to be as big as the Shangri-Las, or probably even the Detroit Cobras, but singer Charlene McPherson reminds me a little of Mary Weiss’ tough-but-vulnerable persona.

This album has some good rocking and sometimes funny songs in which McPherson tackles issues such as jealously (“I Hate Girls”) and poor body image (“When I’m Skinny”).

With typically hard-punching production by Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, the best songs here are the raucous ones like “Field Trip,” “We’re All Gonna Die,” and the Stonesy “Groundhogs Day.”

My only complaint is that there are a couple of ill-advised slow acoustic ballads (“Easy to be Sad” and “Behind”). They’re not that bad. I suspect perhaps McPherson might even have a halfway decent country album in her. These tunes just don’t fit in with the rest of this album.

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