In praise of... Miss America by Mary Margaret O'Hara

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Mary Margaret O'Hara's Miss America is one of those albums I discovered by pure accident. I think it was January 1989 and I was in the huge media store Saturn Hansa near the Theresienwiese where the Oktoberfest takes place in Munich. Lou Reed's New York album was advertised everywhere and I don't remember what I was looking for. The music they played immediately caught my attention. Or more precisely the woman singing on that record. I asked what it was and bought the vinyl (I didn't have a cd player and I don't think it was available on cd anyway) instantly. It was love at first sight. An experience I find very hard to describe.

The music was somewhere in between jazz, classical improvisation, country and God knows what. As I would have liked Joni Mitchell who had already turned into a boring mainstream pop-rock imitator to be. Mary Margaret O'Hara's voice was a girl's voice similar to Rickie Lee Jones's though less so. O'Hara's way of singing is (sorry I have to change the tense now) absolutely unique. It is all about the intonation, the melody of the phrasing, the strange breaks and drawls in the pronunciation of the syllables. She cuts and breaks them and gives them an individual sound like few other singers. If you really want a reference point the only one in terms of emotion I can offer is Billie Holiday. Though it is obvious that O'Hara is a trained singer she transports a sincerity and expressiveness few singers ever matched till then. Substract the exaggerated opera timbre of Jeff Buckley and you will get close to her.

Not only her voice is absolutely stunning but also the words she sings. It all starts with:

You take a walk
I'll be your side
You take my life
I'll give you mine
And you ... you give me something
To cry about

and it goes on

You're in my heart
I'm in your hand
You drop me off
I miss you and ... you,
You give me something
To cry about

That is so to the point that it hurts.

Not all songs are as depressive as the first one. There is the seemingly relaxed countryesque Dear Darling which goes

Why would you run?
I beg stars above
A thing of such beauty
Must be called love

which is followed by the swinging almost groovy hopeful Anew Day. The next quite sombre song When You Know Why You're Happy really speaks to me (I am 1.95 meters = 6 feet 5 tall)

You move much better than you know
Not just some jerky to and fro

Musically my favourite song on the album is the first track on side 2, the upbeat My Friends Have. It goes on with the downbeat rather sad Help Me Lift You Up where she sings

I don't have to tell you
That you're all alone...
I have a dream
It's very clear
You're all around
But never near
Help me lift you up

Keeping You in Mind is a relaxed serene ballad without illusions:

But if our love is all for not
I'm still happy with what I've got
Not having you,
But keeping you in mind

After a long free flowing song the album ends with the almost a cappella (bass & her voice) You Will Be Loved Again where O'Hara exhibits all her vocal capabilities:

Sometime you will
Feel love so deep
And you'll find someone
Not lost in sleep

Sorry that I wasn't able to give you any clue about this album. I guess you have to listen to it yourself.

The new cover has changed colours. The beige yellow has turned into black and the black scripting changed into blue. Obviously this was not for the better.

By the way Mary Margaret O'Hara has released her second album in 2002, the soundtrack Apartment Hunting.

Original post in my blog

alex in mainhattan (alex63), Tuesday, 8 March 2005 19:45 (fourteen years ago) Permalink

Love it to death. And she is only my second-favorite O'Hara sister! I actually buy extra copies of Miss America when I see it. Um, just in case of a very site-specific fire, i guess. It makes me feel good to buy it again.

scott seward (scott seward), Tuesday, 8 March 2005 19:49 (fourteen years ago) Permalink

scott, may i ask who is your fave o'hara sister?

alex in mainhattan (alex63), Tuesday, 8 March 2005 19:51 (fourteen years ago) Permalink

agreed on every count and lovely post.
i'll unabashedly admit i first heard of her via this mortal coil
and i shouted with glee the day i found a sealed copy of the vinyl

rentboy (rentboy), Tuesday, 8 March 2005 19:53 (fourteen years ago) Permalink

I actually buy extra copies of Miss America when I see it.

me too. this is one of maybe three or four albums that i own multiple copies of just in case...of...something.

as with many, i'd imagine, i discovered this through the cover on a this mortal coil album (forget which).

john'n'chicago, Tuesday, 8 March 2005 19:55 (fourteen years ago) Permalink

I wish I still had this. First saw her amazing performance on the shortlived Night Music show on NBC and then I bought this. At the time, I wasn't crazy about the backing on this album, but I'd like to hear it again.

Tim Ellison (Tim Ellison), Tuesday, 8 March 2005 19:58 (fourteen years ago) Permalink

"scott, may i ask who is your fave o'hara sister?"

Catherine! Mary Margaret's big sis. Oh sure, now she does hollywood dumb stuff, but i'm just a big SCTV fan and i've always loved her. One of the funniest people on earth.

scott seward (scott seward), Tuesday, 8 March 2005 19:59 (fourteen years ago) Permalink

i'm not lying when i say i checked this out 'cos of her surname and the fact she's a near-namesake of my mum (Margaret Mary O'Hara) i likes it very much at the time but it just grows, in my memory and in reality, as time goes on. I now think it's one of my top 10 records ever-ever.

i love everything on it but particularly the more rythmically inventive tracks "A year in song" and the lumbering stuttering jerking desperate intensity of "not be Alright" (the finest thing on the record).

i think i'll put it on right now!

jed_ (jed), Tuesday, 8 March 2005 20:03 (fourteen years ago) Permalink

I'm also a big fan of john, frank, and maureen o'hara. no relation to mary margaret as far as i know. and i'd probably like jed's mom if i ever met her!

scott seward (scott seward), Tuesday, 8 March 2005 20:06 (fourteen years ago) Permalink

this album definitely deserves its own tribute thread.

Whatever happened to mary margaret o'hara ?
Mary Margaret O'Hara's new album

you really do just have to hear her voice to believe it.

Though the musicians are all great, I'm not crazy about michael brook's production on this album, it's very much of its time. But in a way it just increases the tension: the music starts, slightly glossy 80's alt pop, you think you've got a grip on what's happening, then right before you tune out she starts in and you lose your mind. She's got the avant dynamic range of Joan LaBarbara / Berberian / Ono etc. but none of the pretension, when she launches into the mad delirious noises it's not a technique, it's just heartstopping.

Even though Apartment Hunting doesn't have as much of a center of gravity as Miss America, it really is just as good, and some of the high points are even higher, it's mostly the same band as on the first record recorded without the gloss, more relaxed and direct... pure strange beautiful.

I hope she doesn't keep us waiting too long for more.

milton parker (Jon L), Tuesday, 8 March 2005 20:07 (fourteen years ago) Permalink

when she launches into the mad delirious noises it's not a technique, it's just heartstopping.


jed_ (jed), Tuesday, 8 March 2005 20:09 (fourteen years ago) Permalink

lovely just lovely.

i have a crap ep of xmas sonngs by her though...

mullygrubbr (bulbs), Tuesday, 8 March 2005 22:00 (fourteen years ago) Permalink

concerning this mortal coil covering m2oh you people are probably referring to help me lift you up from 1991's blood. the clear expressive voice on there is caroline crawley's from the folk pop band shelleyan orphan.

alex in mainhattan (alex63), Wednesday, 9 March 2005 12:36 (fourteen years ago) Permalink

I love the flippancy and the coy, the dashed hope and regret in a line like "I have hung out on the edge of love".

cozen (Cozen), Wednesday, 9 March 2005 12:42 (fourteen years ago) Permalink

Oh this a great album. An intense one-off. Her voice! I can't add much to the thread until I have listened to it again to bring it into focus. I haven't dug this out of the vinyl shelves for too long. Thanks alex!

Is apartment hunting any good?

Dr. C (Dr. C), Wednesday, 9 March 2005 13:57 (fourteen years ago) Permalink

never got hold of apartment hunting, no clue if it is worth it but i guess yes. it was difficult to find for a while in germany.

did you relisten to miss america, dr. c? when i hear her sing it is as if i am in quicksand. i lose the grip to the earth and i love it. there is no way i cannot listen to her voice even if the music is played in the background.

alex in mainhattan (alex63), Thursday, 10 March 2005 19:16 (fourteen years ago) Permalink

I'll just say it one more time: if you like Miss America, you really want Apartment Hunting.

It's often the one I loan out first to sell friends on her.

milton parker (Jon L), Thursday, 10 March 2005 19:33 (fourteen years ago) Permalink

five months pass...
i love usa i like usa girls

manzoor alam, Saturday, 27 August 2005 12:59 (thirteen years ago) Permalink

Yes, Ken, I have this LP and you know it. Also have some mp3s.

The Popish Plot (dymaxia), Saturday, 27 August 2005 17:25 (thirteen years ago) Permalink

She had a video on MTV, many years ago (when there were videos on MTV). Singing at a recording session, looked like her sis Catherine as Glinda the Good Witch (though since Catherine actually appeared this way also, in an SCTV sketch, memory may be doing a mashup--but that's pretty close to accurate--think this was around the time Stipe was endorsing her, which prob helped, but I read she expected her musos to convert to her brand of Catholicism, which caused problems)

don, Saturday, 27 August 2005 17:36 (thirteen years ago) Permalink

one month passes...
Recently rediscovered her. I had Miss America when it first came out and it is sublime. Love the way she uses her voice on Year in Song and Be alright the latter has definite Beefheart feel to it which is cool. But really the whole album is good. Why oh why is it not available in UK? For goodness sake it should be reissued NOW. I've only got scratched vinyl which is virtually unplayable. If any one knows something that I don't please let me know.

Jennie Adams, Wednesday, 28 September 2005 11:51 (thirteen years ago) Permalink

four months pass...
Just listened to a cassette of this tonight for the first time in years. Still one of my all-time favorites, and - remarkably for a mid-80s record - the production is hardly dated.

Eazy (Eazy), Wednesday, 22 February 2006 05:54 (thirteen years ago) Permalink

three months pass...
A late discovery,picked this up at Atlantic Antic for a couple o' years back; took it home to ManchesterEngland where I am now listening to and treasuring this beautiful record.

One question-her previous group Go Deo Chorus had a demo tape floating around the major labels from late 70's-1983. Has anyone heard it or know if there's any word of it appearing in any format (i can't get slsk but can get access)?

neil tacus (tacit), Sunday, 4 June 2006 01:32 (thirteen years ago) Permalink

one year passes...

finally found this, got a nice vinyl copy for only $4 yesterday...

really interesting record, a bit different than i thought it would be....

but yeah dreamy and diffuse, her vocal style is really something.

this sort of seems like the missing link between kate bush and hejira-era joni mitchell, or something.

M@tt He1ges0n, Thursday, 4 October 2007 15:52 (eleven years ago) Permalink

there was an interview with joe boyd recently in tapeop and he talked about this album, which I didn't realize he'd engineered/mixed for the most part; even though michael brook is credited for it, apparently he just barely touched tapes boyd did several years earlier.

akm, Thursday, 4 October 2007 16:18 (eleven years ago) Permalink

yeah he's in the thank you list, but not credited as an engineer

M@tt He1ges0n, Thursday, 4 October 2007 16:23 (eleven years ago) Permalink

Some MMO'H on YouTube:

Eazy, Thursday, 4 October 2007 16:24 (eleven years ago) Permalink

I had never heard of her before reading this thread but I like this:

n/a, Thursday, 4 October 2007 16:34 (eleven years ago) Permalink

Some dude on youtube has put a bunch of her songs to Lost montages for some reason:

n/a, Thursday, 4 October 2007 16:38 (eleven years ago) Permalink

People are weird.

n/a, Thursday, 4 October 2007 16:39 (eleven years ago) Permalink

that Joe Boyd interview in TapeOp (issue No. 60, July/Aug 2007) was great, tons of details about recording this album & working with O'Hara, and how when she started to stress the details he left the album to her and left Toronto to go do the third R.E.M. record. a follow-up letter in this month's TapeOp (I forget who from) provides further detail, evidently a few of the tracks were definitely re-recorded, and the way it was mixed definitely sounds more like a glossy digital Brook production, I wish Boyd could have stayed to finish though it sounds like Mary is a quite the taskmaster

2006 song for a Hal Willner comp:

& she played ATP in London in 2007, there were three or four youtube clips that have been removed. one's still left but it doesn't give you the entire story

Milton Parker, Thursday, 4 October 2007 16:44 (eleven years ago) Permalink

i like this, it looks like someone made a weird animation and put it to her music....her vocals on this really remind me of what i've heard of john jacob niles.

M@tt He1ges0n, Thursday, 4 October 2007 16:52 (eleven years ago) Permalink

ooops duplicate sorry

M@tt He1ges0n, Thursday, 4 October 2007 16:52 (eleven years ago) Permalink

it's ok

last year when I discovered that new MMOH song (during my customary bi-monthly search to watch the 'Night Music' youtube clip linked upthread) I woke up the other MMOH thread to note it, and it sank right to the bottom while this stupid Norah Jones thread kept bouncing around the top. So I checked the Norah Jones thread and it was filled with about 20 people talking about how bland it was and how depressing it was that there weren't any good singers currently releasing music.

Milton Parker, Thursday, 4 October 2007 17:20 (eleven years ago) Permalink

A mutual friend brought her to a show that I played in Toronto a few years ago and we went out for a bit afterwards, and that's probably my favorite brush-with-fame-through-playing-music moment.

Eazy, Thursday, 4 October 2007 17:24 (eleven years ago) Permalink

Went out to a party, not went-out went-out.

Eazy, Thursday, 4 October 2007 17:24 (eleven years ago) Permalink

one month passes...


It's just some jerk to it, j-jerk to it.

jed_, Thursday, 22 November 2007 00:55 (eleven years ago) Permalink

eight years pass...

from an article where several current writers talk about their favourite songwriters in the wake of the Dylan Nobel prize

Mary Margaret O’Hara by Lavinia Greenlaw

An impression of distillation and deep thought … Mary Margaret O’Hara Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

When I was 19 and newly in the grip of writing, I joined a band. Asked to produce lyrics, I intensified my poems. Perhaps I thought that they could be freeze-dried and then rehydrated with a tune. The results were ungainly. Good singer-songwriters must have an extra layer of judgment that enables them to see what most of us need to be shown. Mary Margaret O’Hara is best known for Miss America (1988), and has released just one album since.

O'Hara builds songs out of spare phrases that light each other as the parts of a poem should

She builds songs out of spare phrases that light each other as the parts of a poem should. She sings this way too, as if making a series of gestures which have taken their time to become clear. You get the impression of distillation and deep thought in the making of songs that resist their own weight: “You just want to push somebody / And a body won’t let you. Just want to move somebody / And a body won’t let you.” O’Hara resists stabilisation, something I understood when I saw her perform live. She has a decisive but off-kilter way of moving – a lurch, a flick of the hand, a foot stamp that are impossible to relate to what you’re hearing. It’s as if she has a sense of detail so latent that no one else can detect it. Her lyrics are published in brief lines full of quiet swerves: “So sorry if I can’t stop pretending / So sorry if I don’t let you go / Like this but not like this is ending / I think you know. / I think you know. / Help me lift you up.” They can be heartbreaking in their generosity.

• A Double Sorrow: Troilus and Criseyde by Lavinia Greenlaw is published by Faber.

Stevolende, Sunday, 6 November 2016 15:10 (two years ago) Permalink

one year passes...

had never heard this record before but laura snapes' sunday review of it was excellent

so now "body's in trouble" is really doing me in

princess of hell (BradNelson), Monday, 3 September 2018 17:07 (nine months ago) Permalink

oh Brad I'm surprised you never heard it, it's really a one of a kind record and seems like something you would really love

The Desus & Mero Chain (upper mississippi sh@kedown), Monday, 3 September 2018 18:07 (nine months ago) Permalink

I'm similarly shocked! prob the best album Toronto ever produced

wayne trotsky (Simon H.), Monday, 3 September 2018 19:42 (nine months ago) Permalink

Other than The Trinity Session, that is.

the word dog doesn't bark (anagram), Monday, 3 September 2018 20:13 (nine months ago) Permalink

one month passes...

She's on the new Fucked Up record!

with hidden noise, Sunday, 7 October 2018 13:13 (eight months ago) Permalink

Barely. She's in there somewhere. But it's good anyway.

everything, Wednesday, 10 October 2018 09:07 (eight months ago) Permalink

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