Maria McKee’s voice and songwriting are stronger and more mature on her first solo album than they ever were in Lone Justice, the Los Angeles country-rock group that made its second and final album in 1986. McKee sings out like she’s got one night onstage in a two-bit bar to prove herself. But her lyrics don’t reveal any clear artistic mission and Mitchell Froom’s overstylized production (the strings and horns are a bit much) drowns and/or drains her personality out of the album, leaving characterless elegance instead of a strong statement. McKee’s efforts, however, are not entirely negated. “Am I the Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way?)” is a rousing country ballad Linda Ronstadt might have sung. “Panic Beach” is a dramatic narrative vividly told with literary precision; twangy stomps like “Drinkin’ in My Sunday Dress” are simply irresistible. Richard Thompson, whose “Has She [He] Got a Friend for Me?” McKee covers here, guests on guitar and mandolin.
Exchanging the pre-Raphaelite blonde washout cover photos of Maria McKee for a darker, more urban image, the singer/songwriter made You Gotta Sin to Get Saved with a studio band consisting of Lone Justice alums (mandolin demon Marvin Etzioni, drummer Don Heffington, onetime Patti Smith keyboardist Bruce Brody), Benmont Tench and the Jayhawks’ two guitarists. The altered lineup and look, however, offers scant indication of the album’s shocking musical change. With but a passing nod to country (“Only Once,” a pretty weeper, and the acoustic “Precious Time”), McKee abandons subtle reflection to emerge as a passionately robust rocker, covering Van Morrison (“My Lonely Sad Eyes,” “The Way Young Lovers Do”) and Carole King/Gerry Goffin (“I Can’t Make It Alone”) just for starters. Belting her way through a thicket sprouting from ’60s rock and vintage white soul (Rita Coolidge and Bonnie Bramlett come to mind in spots), McKee explores romance and reminiscences in surging originals like the lyrically resigned (but vocally torrid) “I Forgive You,” a Spectoresque gospel rouser, and “Why Wasn’t I More Grateful (When Life Was Sweet),” a souled-out torch song that sounds like an old Ike and Tina hit. Saving the best for last, McKee lets it all hang out in the infectious title track, a rollicking admission of roving-eye unease that goes out walking like Fats Domino and comes back with a masterful Ronnie Spector impression. Like much of this amazing, unexpected album, McKee splits her convictions between the music and the words, sinning and saving herself in a fission explosion that blasts into the spirit of rock’n’roll.
After that tricky victory, McKee made a complete mess of her next record. Starting with a promising central theme — childhood, both her own and others’ — Life Is Sweet goes straight over the top in a bewildering styleless hodgepodge of bad production ideas, bizarre gimmicks (paraphrasing melodies and rhythm guitar sounds from Ziggy Stardust?), uneven writing and singing so mindlessly zealous in spots that McKee can’t possibly be hearing herself. Angry electric guitars and string arrangements fight to be heard in the poorly balanced confusion; at no point does it sound as if anyone is in charge. There are lovely bits strewn about here and there, but there’s always a spoiler lurking nearby, whether a lyric like “And I pray for the stigmata stain” (in the otherwise alluring “Carried”), a needless explosion of volume (in the initially spare and appealing title track) or the weird instrumental mix (brushed drums, scraggy and dissonant guitar distortion imitating Mick Ronson, electric bass, dramatic strings) of “Smarter.”