Tuesday, January 19, 2016
Mary's Danish - American Standard
Every once in a while, an album comes along that is so ahead of its' time that it burns out before it ever reaches its' zenith. Usually in such cases, the trajectory of the artist mirrors that of its' creation. The unfortunate experience of '90's L.A. alt-rockers Mary's Danish is a tale so sickeningly wrought with late 20th century record label failure and criminal ineptitude that I won't delve deeply into that long, disheartening story here (though the excellent 1999 Sarah Luck Pearson article from the L.A. Weekly linked below is well worth the read). Suffice it to say, it would have been a cautionary tale for up-and-coming bands in that pre-download period in music industry history. In those halcyon days of the early 90's when hard working hard rocking bands with D.I.Y. attitudes were just starting to elbow out the bloated excess of hair spray, spandex, and cocaine in the backs of tour buses, replacing them with Zeppelin t-shirts, ripped jeans, beer and beat-up Ford Econoline vans, Mary's Danish emerged. A blend of rock, punk, funk and the occasional sprinkles of R&B and country, they followed in the paths of Jane's Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, eventually opening tours for both. However, unlike their contemporaries and prior to the explosion of female-fronted alt-rock bands the likes of No Doubt, Garbage, and The Cranberries that followed in their wake, they boasted not one female vocalist, but a dynamic duo of divas with differing vocal styles that complemented each other to excellent effect. After a pair of decent selling debut discs that bordered closer to the funk and ska-influenced poppier styles many who followed in their wake would ride to stardom, Mary's Danish would take a turn to a heavier, harder-edged sound on their third, and ultimately final, effort, 1992's American Standard. Gone were the horns section, pop-leaning flavor and quirky humor, replaced by steady streams of hard rock twin guitar riffs from guitarists Louis Gutierrez and David King, James Bradley Jr's pounding drums, Chris "Wag" Wagner's technically brilliant bass lines, and grittier lead vocals from Gretchen Seager and Julie Ritter belting out harsh cynically charged lyrics wrought with equal parts angst and anger. This was a more groove based, rawer, album from the get-go.
Album opener "Killjoy" begins with the crash of Bradley's sticks crashing into a mid-tempo stomp as the band explodes into shape, while Seager and Ritter alternate between harmonized vocal lines and alternating call-and-answer lead parts. The breakdown in the middle is especially foretelling of the overall theme of the album:
Load your dirty magazine
Isolate yourself from life
Take all the color from your dreams
Your world is pins and strife
"God Said" is a slower, groovier riff-driven acidic commentary on the televangelism phenomenon still so fresh in the nation’s memory banks at the time. The punishing bite of guitars opens "Underwater" before settling into verses that alternate between mellow and bruising lines. Also on display here is the oft-forbidden sound of an accordion courtesy of Ritter which actually doesn't carry the usual mandatory jail sentence in this case. It will make a few other appearances sporadically throughout the album. Up next is "O Lonely Soul, It's A Hard Road" wrought with anguish, full of bluesy guitars and Ritter's pained vocals building throughout from a soft and soulful beginning in a steady crescendo to an angry and resentful open wound. The dueling guitar solos at the opening of "Weeping Tree" builds to a frenzy before breaking off to the soft lamenting sound of the aforementioned accordion playing a lilting soliloquy behind Seager's longing lead vocals. More dueling guitar pyrotechnics between each soulful verse before boiling back down for the chorus. The lyrics here are one of my favorite on the album:
Guitar I've been unfaithful again
And my fingers will falter yeah
While the band plays I am singing out
All the while I'm the weeping tree
"Porcupine" is a bit of punky, funky up-tempo cynicism with Ritter and Seager harmonizing as they "sing a little song about hating everyone you know!" To quote Samuel L. Jackson in "Jurassic Park" "hold onto your butts", this ride is just getting started. The brutally heavy main riff opens "Leave It Alone" tears into your skull, with Seager and Ritter trading gritty verses as the band plays start/stop in between, before breaking into a half-time stomp during the choruses. Gutierrez and King's riffing is on full display here, at full volume, and to maximum effect. The lead breaks here are especially tasty and heavy. "The Living End" is a mellow pause with a bit of country twang infused with an equal amount of soul, followed by the equally mellow but more lamenting "Ode To A Life" featuring bluesy guitars noodling along to Seager's pleading sorrowful vocals, with more of Ritter's accordion providing ambience. The tempo and mood picks up once more as a staccato toe-tapping guitar riff jumps into "My Dear Heretic." Bradley's almost Latin-flavored drumming is on full display accentuated here with bongos. The rocking "Shotgun" features another gritty air-guitar inducing main riff that opens the song then drops out as Seager and Ritter harmonize over the rhythm section before the guitars cut back into full groove mode as the vocals plead "please come home I'll make you feel alright." The dirt and grime of L.A. corruption can almost be felt on the skin as "Gotcha Covered" with its' punky rhythm guitars riff their way around the angry vocals which are spat out in angrily harmonized choruses between traded verses punctuated by Gutierrez and King's noodling. The nearly 8 minute moody epic "Sister Shade" features a guitar melody dripping with phase effect dropped right out of drop-D heaven over a backdrop of arpeggiated chords and slowly driving bass and drums. Woven throughout the brooding verses are softly harmonizing vocals which break into full anger on the chorus. A tasty extended guitar solo featuring Gutierrez and soloing in turn into a Hammond organ backed breakdown before a rampaging double-time bridge erupts into full bull-in-a-China-shop mode with more of Bradley's frenetic drumming before coming back down to the opening riff phasing over Bradley's snare roll as the vocals come back in to finish as the album fades out. Well...except for the "hidden" track, a rollicking version of "I Fought The Law" which for my money trumps even the Dead Kennedys' and Clash versions.
Sadly, Mary's Danish would be ultimately abandoned by their record label while touring for American Standard, then held hostage by a contract that bound them to a company that would neither promote them, nor produce their follow-up album. I was one of the lucky people that discovered them at the time and was also fortunate enough to see them on that ill-fated tour and I can honestly say, they were every bit as advertised on stage. They deserved a better fate, all I can do now is honor the legacy of a great band and a great album by playing it and telling others about it.