Dave Aaronoff and Miss Mary
by Brett Milano
It can't be coincidence that one of my least favorite albums of last year was
by Elvis Costello -- the overwrought and overrated Painted from Memory
-- but two of my favorite local albums from this year, Dennis Brennan's Rule
Number One and now Dave Aaronoff & the Details' Your First
Time . . . with the Details (Lunch), both remind me of Elvis
Costello. Maybe that's because there's a certain kind of song that Costello
isn't interested in writing anymore -- unsentimental pop with a strut and a
snarl -- and there are still plenty of songwriters out there who can pick up
where Blood & Chocolate left off.
Dave Aaronoff hails from the Shods, a band who were never the worse for wearing
their influences on their sleeve. With the Details, it's the same influences
but a different sleeve: punk and pop are still what it's all about, but
Aaronoff's more of a melody guy and less of a belter than the Shods' Kevin
Stevenson, so he leans toward the R&B-tinged British Invasion sound that
would have been called "pub rock" back in the day. Shods fans should relate to
the album's handful of fast guitar rave-ups, and David Minehan's no-frills
production is a link to the last Shods album, Thanks for Nuthin', which
he also produced -- not to mention that Boston pub-rock groundwork that Minehan
laid out with the Neighborhoods.
No surprise that both covers in the Details' recent set at T.T. the Bear's
Place -- "I Wanna Be Your Man" and "Bésame Mucho" -- came from the
Beatles' repertoire. Aronoff's other influences aren't hard to pin down:
Costello's definitely in there, so are Jam-era Paul Weller and London
Calling-era Clash, but so are a few styles that the Shods never touched,
like psychedelia on "Oh So Cold" and the samba feel of "Crawling Back to Me."
What comes through is that Aaronoff is getting a kick from the freedom to try
any style he wants, and from his ability to turn a good hook in all of them. So
you don't have to share his taste to dig the Details, though of course it
"Sometimes I have to fight my instincts to be more like the bands I like," he
notes over a drink at the Middle East. He's wearing a Jam T-shirt that goes
well with his Costello-esque hairstyle and glasses. "I've thrown out a lot of
good songs that were just too much like somebody else. And if I happen to be a
good mimic, that makes it really hard. Like `Oh So Cold' on the album -- that's
the most Beatlesque song on it, and I had to work to keep it from being a
Rutles song. Eventually you get good enough so that the influences just show up
without overwhelming it."
Aaronoff left the Shods last December, about a month after they'd released the
Thanks for Nuthin' album; the band eventually called it quits last
month. It wasn't necessarily the smoothest of partings; what's certain is that
Aaronoff wasn't happy with his second-banana role. "I had a certain job in the
band that I didn't want to do anymore. It wasn't doing anything for me. I
wanted to be the songwriter, not to have to compromise and struggle to do it.
Kevin was obviously a great songwriter, so I had a lot of songs that weren't
getting played." Asked whether his departure hastened the Shods' break-up, he
shoots back, "The truth is, I have no idea why they broke up; I don't really
talk to them. Sometimes when you don't want to play with people anymore, it
blankets everything else -- it's very difficult to stay close to them at
So we'll call it a coincidence that the best song on Aaronoff's album is a
nasty one about friendship gone sour, "Careful Where You Step." It's also the
most Costello-ish thing here, with a hook that harks back to the Armed
Forces days. "I write a lot of fuck-you songs," he says of the number. "The
idea of that one is, `I'm trying to be decent and you leave me no choice but to
want to beat the crap out of you. Please don't make me want to do that
Having been part of two mighty bands -- the Shods and the Mighty Mighty
Bosstones, for whom he was deputized as keyboardist -- Aaronoff is in no hurry
to give himself a permanent line-up. At most gigs the Details comprise
guitarist Brett Rosenberg (who also records solo in a singer/songwriter vein),
bassist Deb Klein (not the Morphine/Sebadoh manager but the Hi-Fi Records
owner), and the busy Orbit/Kay Hanley drummer Paul Buckley (who plays on the
album under a number of joky aliases, including Pauly Scaloppini and Paul E.
Carlos). But other players have dropped in and out, and he's enjoying the
freedom. "It's the same way that if you get divorced from your wife, you might
want to date a bit before you remarry. So I'm dating some other musicians now."
I'm sure there are guys who have hoped, at one time or another, that
those women on early-'60s album covers would come to life. I met one who
apparently did at T.T. the Bear's Place a few weeks back. Calling herself Miss
Mary, she sported a characteristic '60s look: pigtailed hair and bright blue
sweater with fingernails to match. And she handed me a CD -- Hey Blue!
(Stereorrific) -- whose cover shows her in the exact same get-up. Like Miss
Mary's look, the sound isn't quite of this time and place. It harks back to the
sunnier side of French pop, with plenty of organ, trumpets, and surf guitar.
Sporting nine songs that clock in at under 20 minutes, the disc goes by like a
cool breeze. And titles like "The Date," "The Cutest Boy," and "Gimme Gimme"
make the singer come off as boy-crazy in an innocent, mid-'60s kind of way. All
of which leads to one question: is this woman for real?
Well, she is and she isn't. Miss Mary is the performing alias of Mary Stopas,
who sang and played guitar in the Portsmouth-based band the Oscillators. Her
act involves a certain amount of put-on, including one joke that I fell for:
the various cover photos show her recording with lo-fi equipment, singing into
an old radio mike and cueing up a vintage reel-to-reel tapedeck. One figures
that's what she used on the album, but in fact the whole thing was recorded
onto a computer, with Stopas doing the guitars and ex-Oscillators bandmate Joel
Mellin adding the '60s touches. "But we wanted to fool everybody," she notes
over tea at the Middle East. "Miss Mary is someone who wants to be a '60s
French pop star, but she doesn't speak French at all. I just liked the idea of
Pressed further, she notes that her persona was partly inspired by the 1966
Jean-Luc Godard film Masculin-féminine, which starred French pop
singer Chantal Goya. Miss Mary is partly a character and partly herself,
dreamed up to make the songwriting process more fun. The real Stopas, who tends
to look even younger than her 24 years, balances her band life with graduate
computer studies at BU. "The real Mary is a little more down to earth, and she
isn't quite as silly over boys -- in real life she's very quiet."
She also loves the kind of music that Miss Mary would sing, having absorbed a
lot of '60s influence during her Oscillators days. As a songwriter she does a
lot of editing, throwing out parts or even entire songs that don't work --
hence the number of minute-long tracks on her album. "I'm comfortable with
that; I have a real appreciation for short rock songs. Especially playing them
live, that way if people walk away for a minute, they miss a whole song. Most
of the Miss Mary songs were about boys, because that's what pop kids write
about. For a lot of them I picked somebody else and tried to write through
their eyes. `The Date' was a girl being bored during a date but also thinking
in a very forward manner. For `Gimme Gimme,' I pretended to be someone who just
got her guy stolen -- that was fun to write."
As for "Summer Days," where the mood turns a little less giddy and more moody,
"I wasn't pretending to be anyone else; that might have been the real Mary
coming through." But Stopas plans to keep having fun with the character, and
she's now working on a Web site for Miss Mary's music and adventures. Will she
find true love on the next album? "We'll see, but she might."
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