The Boston Phoenix November 9 - 16, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Solo shots

Dave Aaronoff and Miss Mary

by Brett Milano

Dave Aarnoff 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 helps.

"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 all."

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 anymore.' "

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."

Miss Mary 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 that."

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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