Girl group legend sings heartbroken ballads again
“This is my first album in a long time,” begins Mary Weiss, 40 years ago the lead singer in the Shangri-Las, one of the definitive girl groups of the early rock era. The group, comprised of Mary, her sister Betty, and the twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser, had a string of hits from 1964 to 1967, the best known of them probably the drama-heavy death ballad “Leader of the Pack” which reached #1 in 1964. After their split in 1968, the band made one reunion appearance at CBGBs in 1977, and again in New Jersey in 1989, but for the most part the four principals retired completely from music. The Ganser sisters have since passed away, Mary Ann in 1971 and Marge in 1996.
Now, Weiss is back with her first solo album ever, and her first recording since the band’s 1960s heyday… and it’s remarkable how little she seems to have changed. Her voice, at close to 60, has turned a hair deeper and more soulful, but it is still recognizably the same one that adorned “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, and other hits. Her backing band, essentially Greg Cartwright’s Reigning Sound roughens up the sound a bit, mostly avoiding the timpani-and-choir excesses of the Shangri-La’s original lush production. However, they have clearly studied the girl-group genre closely, perhaps at some point passing through imitation into unthinking embodiment. There’s a lovely, slanting strut to the guitar and bass work under “Nobody Knows (But I Do)” that sounds relaxed and natural, but museum-quality accurate to the early 1960s sound. Even the most elaborately orchestrated songs—“I Don’t Care” features a harpsichord—feel restrained and elegant. There’s nothing modern about them, but they’re also not in any way waxworks. They seem to breathe freely enough in their own ages ago atmosphere.
Most of the songs were written by Greg Cartwright, but as a songwriter he has turned several degrees softer, more seductive and more sentimental than when we last saw him brandishing Too Many Guitars. The songs are almost all ballads—and the syrupy title track with its vibrato-laced, bossa nova organ veers perilously into Doris Day territories. Yet “Break It One More Time” rides deep swells of cello and high trilling organ notes into soulfulness, Weiss’ voice cresting effortlessly over the backdrop into the chorus. And there are a couple of rockers as well, the very fine “Don’t Come Back” and the somewhat more restrained, blues-chugging “Tell Me What You Want to Do.”
Lyrically, Dangerous Game is concerned with the same romantic dilemmas as the Shangri-Las’ songs were, scenarios which are, maybe, a little more earth-shattering when you’re 17 than when you’re 58. “Kids don’t know shit,” begins Weiss in the sardonic “Cry about the radio,” but if you’re looking for the wisdom and perspective of a woman who’s lived through things, you won’t find it here. She’s singing about boyfriends and break-ups for the most part, and here’s the thing. Women her age (and my age) who break up tend to lose their houses and have to figure out custody for their kids. They are not going to the hop with another guy any time soon. Love is serious. It has consequences but it is not, anytime after 20, the whole issue in most people’s lives. What bothers me, I guess, is that there’s no evidence in any of these songs of career or children or caring for aging relatives or wondering about the meaning of life, all things that become more important as time goes on. It’s as if Weiss has spent the last 40 years in a time capsule, wearing a poodle skirt.
Dangerous Game is exceptionally well-made, played with warmth and care by a crew of really excellent musicians, but it feels, in ways, like a replica. When Vashti Bunyan came back after a similar absence, she had a lot to say about life and death and children and lasting love. Mary Weiss is still singing about troublesome boyfriends… and it seems a little late in the game for that.
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