Pianist/chanteuse Mary Lorson has a new album, Burn Baby Burn, with her band the Soubrettes. It’s an unassumingly charming, deceptively upbeat, pensively lyrical blend of oldtime-flavored Americana, sultry torch songs and jaunty purist pop. Lorson first rose to prominence back in the 90s as the frontwoman of Madder Rose, whose raw, moody blend of trip-hop and downtempo with rock instrumentation made them a cooler alternative to bands like Tortoise. She was a decent singer in that band, and later in Saint Low; she’s an extraordinary one now. Her voice is clear, unadorned, usually gentle and matter-of-fact, a quietly powerful vehicle for her allusively brooding songs, which reveal themselves slowly, with repeated listening: don’t go into this expecting to be able to make sense of it the first time through. On this album Lorson plays piano and guitar alongside banjoist/guitarist Leah Houghtaling and bassist Amelia Sauter, with contributions from Michael Stark on piano, Joe Novelli on lapsteel and AJ Strauss on horn on a couple of tracks.
The opening track, Busboy, sets the stage for what’s to come, Stark’s hypnotically pointillistic piano mingling with the banjo for a bell-like backdrop that mutes the grimly surreal, apocalyptic lyrics, delivered by Lorson with a deadpan coyness. That contrast between starry melody and bitter resignation recurs a little later on with Only One Number Two and its offhand Satie allusions. The album’s second track, Mancub, puts an oldtimey spin on an indie rock tune, with a blithe “bump bump badump bump” chorus over Kathy Ziegler’s swirling organ and a lyric about a guy who may not realize just how bizarre his life was on his way up. The lush, soul-infused ballad Lately wouldn’t be out of place in the Aimee Mann songbook; Houghtaling does a memorable job mimicking a violin’s pizzicato with her muted touch on the banjo.
The rustic, swirly nocturne River, with its lush blend of acoustic guitar, banjo, bass and organ downplays Lorson’s downcast vibe, while the catchy, matter-of-fact pop tune Bubble of Pretend evokes Greta Gertler in an especially theatrical moment. The hypnotic title track, its resonant lapsteel contrasting with boomy bass, creates a bucolically atmospheric milieu that reminds of Hem. By contrast, the upbeat country song Crystal Ball nicks a Jenifer Jackson lick: “Are you looking at me, I’m the only one in here,” Lorson asks enigmatically.
These Police, a ballad contrasting upper-register piano with Lorson’s finely nuanced, torchily wounded vocals, looks at the consequences of exhausting yourself to please others who probably couldn’t care less. The inscrutably seductive, pulsing, cabaret-flavored Let ‘Em Eat Little Debbie Cakes asserts that “Marie Antoinette never made that crack about the poor and their petits fours for breakfast.” The album winds up with its only cover song, I Don’t Care, brassy tune punctuated by big ghostly flurries of guitar, brass and backing vocals. This was the signature song for Eva Tanguay, proto-flapper feminist, vaudeville star and contemporary of Sophie Tucker and Mae West. But rather than channeling the lyrics’ impunity, Lorson delivers it wistfully, as if she really does care and has taken a beating for that. It’s an apt way to close this thoughtful and thought-provoking album.