Forgotten Albums: Mary Margaret O’Hara, Miss America

My wife and I are outliers when it comes to watching television. As in, we rarely have the TV on. No Netflix subscription, no Amazon Fire Stick or Roku. I received the complete Rockford Files for Christmas last year, and we’re about halfway through Season 1, for what that’s worth. We do have basic cable, but mainly because it seemed to make sense to bundle it with our internet (I’m not sure that’s the case any more).

I have the distinct sense we’ve missed out on some very good series over the years; I guess the good news is that living in the streaming era allows us to catch up sorta quickly if we ever get the bug? Via my Twitter feed, I’ve become aware of the titles of many of the possibilities. And since the Emmy Awards happened just a couple of days ago, I guess I’m learning even more about them this week. Take Schitt’s Creek, for instance. Record number of awards for a comedy–that’s pretty cool, I suppose. But while I knew the name, I’d never bothered to find out it was a Canadian series, or that it just ended, or that it starred those SCTV stalwarts of long ago, Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara.

Even though I don’t know much of anything about TV these days, I do store plenty of music trivia in my noggin, and the tidbit coming to mind right now is that Mary Margaret O’Hara, Catherine’s sister, released an album in 1988. Miss America had actually been recorded four years earlier, and it took all that time for MM to win the battle with Virgin to get it out on the market. Feel certain that it came to my attention via Rolling Stone; apparently they were sufficiently impressed, and sometime in the early 90s I picked up a used copy:

(Aside: my friend Greg was adamant about not peeling the stickers off used CDs he bought–he wanted to maintain some semblance of an historical record. I think I began following suit the year he and I roomed together. Now if only I could remember whether Periscope Records was in C-U, or the Cincy area, or Lexington, or somewhere else. Another case of winning the battle but losing the war.)

I found Miss America a difficult listen the first few times I put it in the player, and it wound up falling out of favor pretty quickly. In the last couple of years, though, I’ve sought out a song or two from it on YouTube, and am finally beginning to embrace O’Hara’s exquisite, tortured voice. Let’s wander around some of its better tracks.

“Year in Song” is track 2, and one of the more challenging cuts. “Joy is the aim,” O’Hara notes, and proceeds to make it clear that’s not on the horizon. Nonetheless, the title has stayed with me over the years, and was incorporated into the title of one of my earlier posts.

Next up is “Body’s in Trouble,” which as this Pitchfork review from a couple of years ago notes, straddles the divide between stuff like “Year in Song” and the stunningly beautiful songs here. O’Hara isn’t so much singing as she is inhabiting her work. It’ll be a while before I’ll think of the phrase “Who do you talk to” in a way different from how it’s presented here. We also get to witness her approach to the craft in the video.

Probably my favorite right now is “Anew Day,” the closest thing to a potential pop hit on Miss America. In contrast to just about everything else on here, it’s jaunty and optimistic. We also get to listen in as O’Hara creates new language.

No overview of Miss America would be complete, though, without showcasing how breathtakingly beautiful O’Hara can sing. I’ll give you two examples: “Help Me Lift You Up,” and the phenomenal closer, “You Will Be Loved Again.” (But don’t overlook “Dear Darling.”)

Mary Margaret went down a completely different path in the arts from her more famous younger sibling, and hardly recorded following this release. We’re fortunate to have Miss America, though, and I plan on keeping it in occasional circulation now.

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