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Mary Bue was part of the Duluth music scene for nearly two decades, playing lovely solo songs on piano starting in the late ‘90s. Then in 2015 she went all rock and roll and learned to curse like a sailor in her lyrics, perhaps to counter the relatively demure pianist image, or perhaps to provide a more effective vent for personal demons, and/or just for a change of pace.
Eventually she wrote a pop punk song called “The S--t I Left in Duluth” and moved to Minneapolis. No offense taken, though, as the song is wistful rather than bitter about this place. (Favorite line: “I took some tables to Goodwill / I got a coupon at Saver’s for 20 percent off but it’ll probably expire too soon.” As one who’s gotten many such coupons from Saver’s, I dig that.)
Down south she quickly gained recognition. The Kickstarter campaign for this album was launched in November 2018 and after nearly two years of teasing and postponed release dates (delays included switching plans from releasing it on a label to releasing it independently, and a winter retreat in India) it’s finally out.
For those who contributed to her campaign, you can certainly hear where the money went. (Disclosure: I put in $10. You can see my name in the thank-you list in the lyrics book, fourth column, not quite halfway down. Yes, right there!) It’s produced by Steve Price of The Suburbs, along with Jeremy Ylviskaker (Alpha Consumer, The Cloak Ox). Team Bue also includes Adam Levy, lead singer-songwriter of The Honeydogs.
This album is different, she writes, because “the last two Kickstarter projects saw me shifting genres to ‘90s-inspired grungy indie rock. This new album is a coming-together of that rock-y shift & my piano-folkie roots.”
The rock and piano don’t exactly come together so much as coexist on an album with diverse styles. She’s judicious with the keys, eschewing them when she wants a hard-edge rock and highlighting them when she wants something closer to Carole King. They blend together on one track, “Tequila Song,” when she merges hard and soft rock with the help of a reggae beat and insane electric guitar work by Ylviskaker.
The opening track, “S--t Storm,” sounds like a theme for a western movie set in a ghost town. Musically it’s fun, but lyrically it’s a dark and depressing, warning about climate change, with a grim nod to this region: “I had a vision the Great Lakes were drained / Superior Desert was her new name.”
Social activist lyrics are nothing new to Bue, and climate change is certainly the most pressing matter of our time. But if you’re serious about doing something, writing a song seems an indirect method of addressing it. Still, if it scares you enough that you’ll Google ways to reduce your carbon output, it’s done its job.
“The Hanged Man,” despite the title, is not a downer, instead a fast, engaging tune that sounds like a Pretenders tribute. It’s got that band’s signature driving beat, jangly guitar, sweet chords and even the Chrissie Hyndes-like slur in the vocals. The title actually references the Tarot card that represents self-sacrifice, and naturally that ties into a relationship: “You got me hanging from ladders upside down.”
The title track is more like the Mary Bue we all know and love, a joyful song that opens with her piano, launching it into an upbeat rocker and reminding us she has the sweetest voice this side of Natalie Merchant. The words reflect her own journey of breaking out of her ruts and routines, going out and embracing the wider world.
“All the Things” also opens with lush piano chords and adds orchestral strings (courtesy of Shannon Frid-Rubin, violinist for Cloud Cult and Julia Floberg, cellist for Delphia) for a passionate break-up song. “You’ll be the victim, I’ll be the savior, you be the savior and I’ll be the idiot / What is this pattern, a two-way street of suffering, and I’m playing the villain again … None of us here are getting out alive, if we’re all gonna die, let me live.”
“It’s a Competition” is back to the rocking side, a duet with Levy. “I Don’t Need” is a countryesque love song with slide guitar. As the instrumentals rise, she belts out the chorus like Sheryl Crow, overwhelmingly pulling the heartstrings. After this extravaganza, “Gemini Eyes” seems almost a relief at first, jazzy and light, but it also becomes lushly orchestrated and intense.
“You F--k Me Up” is an acidic rock song as the title might suggest. I found the F-bombs distracting, and I started counting them rhythmically like David Bowie doing the countdown in “Space Oddity.” (I got to 12.) Despite this, it’s a great f--king song with brilliant f--king drumming by Richard Medek.
“Insider” covers a song Tom Petty wrote for Stevie Nicks, but then he got too attached to it to give it away and they did “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” instead. They eventually sang it together on his 2006 tour. Bue recreates this duet while returning to her piano-only roots and bringing in Alan Sparhawk as co-vocalist. It’s an amazing tribute, proof that we’re still mourning Petty’s death three years after the fact.
“Jerk” sounds like a cheerful R&B love song until you pay attention to the lyrics, which are about a crummy boyfriend she’s nonetheless having a hard time dumping. “My Ego is Huge” is short and humorous, with just vocals, guitar and hand-clapping: “My ego is huge, my ego is bruised, can’t take it anywhere, it’s on its worst behavior.” So she considers taking it to a shaman. “Hawaii” is also short, but slow and emotional.
The album closes with “The Riverman.” The piano intro is a nod to Dolly Parton, nearly duplicating the intro to “Here You Come Again,” and it has the same bouncy beat. But the melody is its own and a 1960s-style horn section joins in. It’s about missing someone, a frequent theme in her songs.
She also sang about missing someone in “The S--t I Left in Duluth.” We have to wonder if there’s someone here she misses, or maybe she misses this town. We certainly miss her. But if this album is any indication, moving out into the world has enabled her growth from indie gem to badass force of nature.