She had to sin to be saved
Signed to a major label before she was even voting age, Maria McKee was always doomed to take a fall. No one wants to hear your voice crack in public. McKee's had a big, beautiful voice since the age of 20: Lone Justice's self-titled debut hinted at a young woman grown up way before her time, and she overpowered songs that weren't as good as the woman singing them. It made her a star in the roots-punk circles out west, a diva to those who heard the raw independence in her voice and felt her post-teen indignation. Yet her voice also contained a promise that Lone Justice's second record Shelter could never live up to, and she crashed before she ever soared.

Seven years ago, she released Maria McKee--a beautiful and pristine record, with every note and every chord and every instrument set perfectly in place by producer Mitchell Froom. The album is as hazy as a forgotten dream and as ballsy as a drunk, and it casts McKee as a fallen waif dressed all in white and set behind a veil of gauze. When she came through town in 1989 to perform an industry-only showcase at 2826 in Deep Ellum, her voice was lost underneath the chatter of record retailers and radio programmers guzzling free drinks.

You Gotta Sin to Be Saved, released in 1993, was a return to form--but whose form? McKee was playing with old Lone Justice compadres and members of the Jayhawks, but the record was a compromise, what she calls her "Lone Justice apologist record" in her press bio; it felt forced and familiar, like a step back that turned into a stumble. This is what makes the brand-new Life is Sweet that much more of a pleasant shock: With McKee playing all the guitars for the first time in her career, it's a delirious and tough and deliberately sloppy record that Geffen Records once thought of shelving because it was so out of character for McKee.

String sections collide against tense guitar lines, lyrics about sex and violence dart past as though they were about the same thing ("Scarlover" is a case in point). Above it all, McKee rediscovers what made her voice so special so long ago. Her voice still cracks, but with the authenticity of a woman no longer merely playing grown-up. She whines and whispers, hollers and howls, sings in such a way that the lyrics nearly melt into indecipherable and guttural sounds. It's easy to get lost in there, to become hypnotized by the delivery and lose track of what she's actually saying. But that's the ultimate appeal about rock and roll: It's how you say it, not what you say. Lyric sheets are for folkies.

--Robert Wilonsky

Maria McKee performs March 31 at Trees. James Hall opens.


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