Sweet Janes

Record No. 1 is a pop album of harrowing textures. Where will it find a home? Despite some occasionally thunderous bursts, the Mary Janes embed their rock & roll hooks with great subtlety, and Janas Hoyt's liquid phrasings, free of histrionics or breathy posing, demand a rare attentiveness. It's become a cliche to lament the genre fragmentation of radio -- even a station as extraordinary as KDHX tends to parcel shows into musical niches: a slot for folk, a slot for bluegrass, a slot for jazz, a slot for blues -- but that fragmentation is a fact. If you're a band like the Mary Janes and you combine countryish melodies and textures with bubbly pop and some confessional folk intimacy, and now and again shoot the whole through with rock fury, you may wind up with an irresistible record no one will ever hear.

"Some of the feedback we've gotten totally dismisses us," Hoyt says. "They'll say, 'I think this is pop music or triple-A music, and I have no place for it in my radio show. I can't play this next to Hank Williams.' We've had people tainting it one way or another, but the music is in a gray area. I confess that I didn't sit down in 1996 when I started this recording and say, I'm gonna make an alt-country record. As we got out and started playing, we found an affinity with certain bands, and reviewers discovered an affinity that we never originally noticed. We come from a very roots-oriented neck of the woods, but it has become what it has become."

The Mary Janes grew out of Hoyt's previous band, the Vulgar Boatmen (whose song "Drive Somewhere" was something of a regional hit), and their debut on the indie Delmore label (now to be distributed through E-Squared) was recorded and engineered by Mark Maher (Mysteries of Life) and John Strohm (Lemonheads). The sessions took place at Echo Park Studios in Bloomington, Ind., a place that remains central to the Mary Janes' music.

"Record No. 1 was a strange event," Hoyt says. "So many people worked on it; it was a very generous gift. It's kind of like this town, a very collaborative place. We worked together for six days in June of '96 and then six days in January of '97. Our time was very limited; most everything was done in first or second takes. Mark Maher was just intrepid, very good at getting the right sounds to tape. After all was said and done, I was going to say that it was produced by no one or that it was produced by committee. At the time I didn't have any credit as a producer, but still the studio gave us so much free time. Mark Hood at Echo Park was so generous and faithful. At one point the guy at our label just disappeared and hadn't paid the bills. I went over to Mark Hood and introduced myself and said, 'I was here in June and there's no one to pay you, but I'm gonna pay you; I'm gonna get a job and pay you.' He said, 'No, I'll work something out. I really believe in this project.' I remember a time, in the middle of the project, when it was getting tossed around on the West Coast. Joe Chiccarelli (who has worked with Beck, U2, and Tori Amos) heard it and said, 'I really think these are amazing continued on page 68MARY JANEScontinued from page 66songs. You have an amazing voice, and I'd like you to come to Los Angeles. I'll provide the band and produce it here.' I explained that I wasn't really interested in doing that. I live in this town and work with these people who are like family. There's a kind of altruism to this town. Maybe it's the Midwest."

Hoyt's musical sensibility -- part orchestral pop, part minimal folk, part surreal adventurist -- draws on her affinity for the visual arts, her original focus when she began college in Bloomington. "I gravitated toward a very bohemian scene and was introduced to punk rock. Punk in Bloomington in the '80s was small but had some phenomenal bands like the Gizmos and the Dancing Cigarettes. I started listening to the Clash, Patti Smith and Lou Reed. When I moved to NYC I was listening to Billie Holiday. But as a child I did musicals at school, and the groundwork for my musical understanding comes from a straightforward orchestral approach, the theory behind it. My whole being thinks in loops of four: When I was a swimmer, I would swim with the beat in my head.

"I had a child in the mid-'80s," Hoyt continues, "and I read a lot of books about children and the mind, especially Montessori, and it affected the way I perceive the senses. There's something Maria Montessori said about how art is basically thinking with the senses. To me, music was a culmination of all things I loved about art: performing, acting, dancing, painting. Music is a language that speaks to humanity anywhere; it's one of the oldest forms of communication on the planet. For me, it has a divine influence and interpretation. Music used to be the way we honored our ancestors, the way that we transcended. The closer you can be to your senses, the closer you can be to making good music."

That sensualism arises from Hoyt's warm, isolated guitar tones -- a handmade Epiphone Riviera through a small Princeton tube amp -- and the hushed warmth of her voice, often whispering -- not because she can't belt or soar (she can) but because her songs linger, without fear of intense closeness, to some very fragile emotions.

All of our old days fall away
They fall away
You and I were once like friends
like lovers almost real

Shooting star, shooting star, I wonder where you are, a blaze of light, a blaze of love

I've been burned by it before

This is fine pop lyricism. Why? Apart from the effortless economy and the reinvigoration of a common cliche, at the heart moves a metaphor sparking off meanings in multiple directions. Fame, love, luck, time, all are wished upon like shootings stars, all those flashing signs of fortune found in bits of matter falling through space. Like friends, like lovers who never become real, they burn in heat for a moment and then die out. The music crests on piano, overwhelming electric guitars, tambourine, a deep soul bass, spiraling classical strings, a halo of female harmonies, and Hoyt's voice, eking out breathless notes, like the droning bleats running through Laurie Anderson's "O Superman."

The songs on Record No. 1 circle around relationships and explore an inwardness that never spills into narcissistic pronoun rock. Playing off violin and cello, used, as Hoyt puts it, "like a rhythm guitar, chugging along, droning," the arrangements stir the melancholy air and frequently burst into unexpected ecstasies. "My friend Ira Robbins said that I'm the saddest happy woman he knows," Hoyt laughs. "I do perceive this intense sadness all the time. But it's like a pendulum. As black as things can be, they can only be as bright."

There's a prayerful attentiveness to Hoyt's songs, an admirable openness towards the glories and pains of life. Midway through Record No. 1 she finds herself, "digging a hole/to bury these words," and yet she feels "like laughing out loud."

"That is something the American Indians did when they had a great pain," Hoyt says. "They'd go away into the woods, dig a hole, and shout into the hole and bury it."

The Mary Janes play the Three-1-Three Club in Belleville, Ill., on Saturday, June 19.