[22 July 2003]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Even though they’ve already had two independently-released albums out, New York’s Mary Lee’s Corvette made a whole lot of ears perk up when Bar/None records released their song-for-song remake of Bob Dylan’s classic 1974 album Blood on the Tracks. A one-off performance recorded live in the East Village, their version of Blood on the Tracks was a fantastic, utterly beguiling album that, thanks to the gutsy, yet sensitive voice of Mary Lee Kortes, added a fresh, female twist to the most personal of all of Dylan’s albums. The lilting charm of Kortes’s voice on “Buckets of Rain” alone makes the album worthwhile, as she comes incredibly close to topping Bob’s original version. The CD became a bit of a cult hit, and it appeared that even the Bob Dylan camp approved when song clips started to appear on Dylan’s own official web site. After the surprise success of that album, now’s as good a time as any to show folks what Mary Lee’s Corvette’s actual original compositions are like.
Well, they’re back with a bunch of their own songs in tow to prove any naysayers wrong. The album, 700 Miles, is a modest little record that niggles its way into your head, and charms the hell out of you, just like the last album did. They might be a band in name, but Mary Lee’s Corvette is all about Ms. Kortes, who serves as singer, principal songwriter, and founder. The album, according to Kortes, is about self-discovery, something that she herself had to go through when her husband and producer Eric Ambel went out on tour as Steve Earle’s guitarist. Left alone with her portable studio, Kortes experimented with the original demos, which were recorded in her East Village apartment, tweaking the sound here and there. The end result is a much more intimate sounding record, a poignant tribute to living life freely.
The album treads the line between folk and country, as Kortes’s up-front, cozy vocals underscore the intimate feel, starting with the gentle singalong of “The Nothing Song”. Over a gently insistent beat, Kortes sounds like a woman bombarded by weariness as she wishes to go back to simpler times, but sees the humor in her desire, singing, “All I want is to want nothing / But that would still be something”. “Out from under It” is a real winner of a country-folk song, with Kortes sounding like a younger version of Shawn Colvin, as she sings innocently in the pretty chorus, “Raindrops falling everywhere but on me / Oh my God how good it feels to be free”. She shows some wit on the satirical “More Stupider”, a wry jab at the pressure some women feel to play it dumb around their men (“Well I’m not an intellectual / But I’ve heard people say / You’ve got to dumb it down, down, down / If you want to get your own way”), as the song goes into a funky little chorus, complete with a melody that Prince might appreciate.
The wonderful title track is a simple, acoustic country song about separated lovers, while the gentle “Like Water” sounds like it came straight from Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love album, with its easygoing, unpretentious wordplay (“We run together like water / Two rivers into one”) and hushed melody. Meanwhile, there’s more of an electric feel on the driving “(Give It To) The Needy”, a great song about a woman telling her man to take a hike, and there’s a subtle hint of strings on the blues-infused “Redemption Day”. 700 Miles climaxes on “Portland, Michigan”; it covers familiar territory, as it tells a tale about a small-town girl escaping her hometown for the city, only to find it’s those small-town values that made her who she is, but Kortes and her cohorts pull it off with wide-eyed grace.
Over its 52 minutes, 700 Miles does wear thin a bit, as some of the tracks start to sound good, but ordinary; yet when you get to the wonderful cover of Townes Van Zandt’s classic “No Place to Fall”, Kortes’s entrancing voice weaving that spell that she does so brilliantly, you’re completely seduced and willing to forgive any missteps. This album won’t change the world, and it doesn’t break new ground, but sometimes you need to go back to the basics every once in a while, and Mary Lee’s Corvette follow the formula very well. It’s a nice record to kick back and listen to.