Maria McKee|Madonna

High Dive (Viewfinder)|American Life (Maverick/Warner Bros.)

Shame Maria McKee couldn't lift the name of Madonna's label for her own upstart; seven years since Geffen made an orphan of its once-beloved daughter by abusing her Life is Sweet, she returns as the real renegade of this twosome, who came of age and stardom at roughly the same time and traveled down two very different paths. The literal-minded might insist they wound up at roughly the same spot, meaning deep inside themselves; how much you care about both two decades on depends greatly upon how much you careabout both. In Madonna's case, that likely ain't much; icons are too distant and cold to relate to, especially when they sing about soy lattes and hire French producers. McKee's easier to give a damn about, because she's out to carry the world's burden on her tiny shoulders, which may be what causes her to sing like she's got a mother backache some of the time.

Madonna, living the high American Life, loves her husband, wuvs her kids and absolutely adores her blessed, hard-won existence even if she's feeling guilty about it, which passes for cultural criticism post-Material Girl; she's flaunting, even if she pretends otherwise. Still, the reviewing masses will insist the beast has been domesticated; some might even say tranquilized. Ah, yet who but rock crits listen to lyrics? She is and always has been about innuendo-out-the-other dance music, though sadly not the Music, which was far more interesting and engaging than this toned-down, turned-down acoustic-guitar-and-keybs affair that posits her as a Patty Hearst figure held hostage by her trainer and the ghost of a dead mama ("Mother and Father," introspective as a mannequin gets). "Nobody Knows Me," goes one title; as if.

McKee's thrilling leap off the High Dive lands in a pool of tears and mint tea: part Love (her late-great bro, Brian MacLean, was Arthur Lee's conscience), part Who (windmill bombast, often out of nowhere), part so-high-So-Cal-art-rock (trumpets, trumpets, trumpets) and a thousand parts McKee, who's all high notes when she's brought low by life (like, all the time). She has every right to think the world's out to get her, but not so pessimistic to believe she can't shatter the darkness with a good primal scream or, even, a soul-sistah's low moan ("Love Doesn't Love," pity). She celebrates a rare day of feeling good, sings one for all the boys whose daddies don't love 'em and girls whose men don't stick around ("I wish it could be me"), and even her rock-and-roll suicide song ("Non Religious Building," and...wha?) offers a hand out of the jam. In other words, Madonna feels bad about being Madonna (but not too bad), and McKee feels bad about being McKee (because she can't be you, you poor dear).

 
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