In 1995, singer-songwriter Mary Karlzen got her one big break, singing with Atlantic Records. They released her sophomore album, Yelling at Mary, to deservedly mixed reviews. The songs were performed well, while the arrangements struck a fine balance between Americana rock and Lilith Fair folk. Karlzen’s voice isn’t half-bad, possessing a nice hint of twang, but not a whole lot of character. But it was all rather indistinct. If you liked the Counting Crows and Sheryl Crow (but not necessarily the film The Crow), then you probably would’ve been content to listen to Yelling at Mary. Maybe, back in the mid-‘90s, you did hear that album and simply don’t remember. Hey, that’s all right. I just finished listening to it right now, and I can’t recall anything significant about it, myself.
Not surprisingly, Karlzen and Atlantic parted ways after just that one album. Fortunately for her, she found some fans at an indie Miami label called Y&T Music (disappointingly, I couldn’t detect any affiliation with the early ‘80s pop metal band Y&T). They issued her third album, 2000’s Dim the Watershed, along with a few EPs and reissues of her first two albums. In other words, they now own everything Karlzen recorded prior to this new disc, The Wanderlust Diaries.
Unfortunately for Karlzen, her fourth album suffers from the same lack of distinction that plagued her second. Partly, this is the result of songwriting whose hooks are either absent or feel worn out and dragged along for the ride. Still, more puzzlingly, it seems that, as a singer, Karlzen avoids any hooks that might be lurking in her songs. She lets us test this theory a couple of times during the course of The Wanderlust Diaries. Of the dozen tunes here, 10 are originals. The other two are Paul Westerberg’s “Skyway” (the pretty song on the Replacements’ excellent Pleased to Meet Me) and “Heart of Saturday Night” by Tom Waits (the title track to another great album). Each of these pieces is impossibly good, right? (If you’re not sure, just smile and nod.) For any qualified interpreter of song, covering these babies should be a sure thing, a slow pitch right down the middle of the plate, a pair of gold nuggets served on a silver platter. So, does Karlzen deliver? Her take on “Skyway” is quite nice, with swelling lap steel and bright acoustic guitar strums carrying the track along; her vocals are fairly unassuming, but passable. “Heart of Saturday Night,” on the other hand, simply drags. And, as if often the case, Mary’s voice sits inertly in the mix, afraid to take command and truly lay claim to the song.
She doesn’t wow us with her renderings of other songwriters’ top-rate material, and her own compositional chops are nowhere near the league of a Westerberg or a Waits. So, axiomatically, the rest of The Wanderlust Diaries should be at or below the quality of the two covers. And, for the most part, this holds true. We are left with ten middle quality originals, performed well by her band (which includes veterans of top acts like the E-Street Band, Wilco, and the Dixie Chicks), but generally a bit weakly by Mary Karlzen, herself. An exception to this rule is the punchy roots rocker “Oh My,” the clear candidate for a first single. Meanwhile, the dynamically arranged “Find Yourself” lives in similar territory, but the winning melody just isn’t there. Aside from being able to enlist some really good session men, Karlzen’s strongest asset is her lyric writing, which makes fine probings into the tiny crannies of daily life. It’s too bad that they’re more enjoyable when read from the lyric book than when heard on CD. The Wanderlust Diaries is a confounding mixture of strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, despite strong performances and thoughtful lyrics, Karlzen’s unremarkable music and lackluster vocals drag the album down. Once again, Mary Karlzen delivers an album that is only just fine.