My Favorite Album: Little Scream on Mary Margaret O’Hara’s "Miss America" | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, October 29th, 2020  

My Favorite Album: Little Scream on Mary Margaret O’Hara’s “Miss America”

“The songs are intuitive and exploratory. They seem effortlessly experimental while still honoring more conventional form.”

Sep 22, 2020 Photography by Zach Hertzman Issue #66 - My Favorite Album - Angel Olsen and Sleater-Kinney
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When I was 13 my dad started dating a harp player who had recently traded in her pink mohawk for a smart, long auburn bob to get a job in the symphony orchestra. I was a socially awkward Star Trek loving book nerd with large glasses and hair that always looked like I had just stepped out of a rainstorm. I was in awe of her coolness. She gave me a mixtape that had a fine selection of mostly New Wave bands. Tucked in between Elvis Costello, Roxy Music, and World Party were two songs by Mary Margaret O’Hara. I remember the instant I heard her voice, with its haunting perfect vibrato and inspired lilt—it felt like the direct channeling of an entire soul, and I felt possessed. Even though it was placed among music from the ’80s and early ’90s, it didn’t feel like it fit there. It didn’t feel like it fit anywhere. It felt like someone in the future had opened a time capsule from the past, and that I was somehow sitting there listening in the transom between the two.

It was still the era of mixtapes. Napster was a few years away. I scoured every record store in the Midwest from Chicago to Minneapolis to find more of her work and turned up nothing. “To Cry About” and “Dear Darling” remained portals to an unreachable galaxy. 

When I finally did get my hands on a copy of the CD reissue of Miss America, listening for the first time was a quasi-religious experience. The familiar spooky lonesomeness of “To Cry About” was followed by the bouncy drums and startling vocal improvisations of “Year in Song.” I knew I was in for a ride and couldn’t predict where I’d be going. From the bounding joy of “Anew Day” to the restlessly sharp “Not Be Alright” each song was a singular treasure. I felt like I was sitting inside of a geode, a brilliant contained universe with shimmering rough-hewn gems all around me.  

O’Hara’s voice and vocal improvisations are undeniably “real”—emotive, and unmistakably unique. The songs are intuitive and exploratory. They seem effortlessly experimental while still honoring more conventional form. One of the most remarkable things about the album is O’Hara’s sense of timing and of space. In songs like “To Cry About” and “When You Know Why You’re Happy” we are reminded that the space is as carefully constructed as the sound around it.

Miss America is the music of someone reflecting a deep inner world. Even though it came out in 1988, it barely touches the production tropes of the era. And the ones it does are tasteful—for example, I find the fretless bass sits pretty comfortably in the current era. It’s an album overdue for a revisit. 

(Little Scream is the stage name of Laurel Sprengelmeyer, who was born in Iowa, but is based in Canada. Her latest album, her third, is Speed Queen, a 2019 release on Merge. It features the politically charged single “Dear Leader.”)

[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 66 of Under the Radar’s print magazine. This is its debut online. For the issue we interviewed musicians and actors about their all-time favorite album.]

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