And besides, I’d like to think with a voice like that, McKee would have been a singer regardless. Okay, maybe she wouldn’t have found herself signed to Geffen Records at such a tender age. But my, can the girl wail. Someone somewhere would have appreciated her voice.
McKee fronted Lone Justice, an L.A.-based cowpunk band, that had something of an MTV with “Ways to Be Wicked” in 1985 off the band’s self-titled debut. That first album had an old-timey rockabilly feel, singing as she did about the house being wrecked by the river overflowing its banks, soup kitchens and rescue missions and boyfriends (possibly husbands, though really, I doubt it) working late. McKee proved that a bad Baptist girl knows how to sin — and how to feel really guilty about it — just as well as any lapsed Roman Catholic from Michigan.
That first album is a sweet little gem. My favorite cuts from that record are “East of Eden,” “Soap, Soup and Salvation” and “You Are the Light.” I never thought “Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling)” fit on the record well — it had far too generic a pop feel to it — but it was mainly written by Steven Van Zandt, and I suspect this was producer Jimmy Iovine’s attempt at giving the record something commercial that someone who’d never heard of Lone Justice might recognize. At the time, I’d never heard of Steven Van Zandt either. But then I didn’t get around much.
The second album, Shelter, was something of a ponderous disaster. Gone is the old-timey, rockabilly and in its place is, well, a synthesizer-heavy collection of songs (save for “Dixie Storms”) that are lyrically a little too pretentious. (Give “Reflected (On My Side)” a listen and see if I’m not right about this.) “I Found Love” is a neat little rocker, but it’s not “East of Eden.” I never thought the rest of the album wasn’t really worth the effort, and usually never got farther than “Shelter” when I would listen to this. McKee’s voice cannot redeem some things.
In fact, this lousy second record is probably the reason Game Theory‘s 1986 record The Big Shot Chronicles was not released on Geffen. I asked Scott Miller about this when I interviewed him in 1987, and here is the story he told me: Somehow an A&R person at Geffen managed to get a copy of the master of The Big Shot Chronicles and was interested in possibly signing Game Theory. But there was some argument about this (Game Theory was never easily marketable), and apparently the tape was passed all the way up the chain of command and authority to David Geffen himself, who gave the tape a listen and nixed the effort. “They sound too much like Lone Justice and other bands we’re losing too much money on,” David Geffen reportedly said, according to Scott.
And given how miserable Shelter is, yeah, I think I would have passed on any band I thought sounded like Lone Justice too. (Game Theory’s 1987 double album Lolita Nation was an amazing work of musical genius which spent some time atop the college radio charts, while their 1988 effort Two Steps From the Middle Ages was a failed commercial venture akin to Shelter, but with Scott Miller’s nerdy charm and genius.)
But that wasn’t the end of Maria McKee. Because a girl with a voice like that cannot, and should not, keep it to herself. So in 1989, she released a self-titled solo album, again on Geffen (I’m guessing contractual obligation). And Maria McKee is amazing album, but it’s one that took a lot of time to grow on me. Years, in fact. McKee is back to being the bad, broken-hearted and somewhat guilt-ridden Baptist girl again, wrestling with desire and drinking in her Sunday dress. Her voice really works these songs, and there’s a lot to love on this record. Aside from the cut featured in today’s blog, “Panic Beach,” “This Property is Condemned” (which is a wonderfully slinky and snarly piece of music), “More Than a Heart Can Hold” and “Drinking in My Sunday Dress” (and oh, how she howls in that song!) are all worth the price of admission.
Okay, so some years later, I’m in a record store in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (yes, there are), and I came across a copy of the first Dixie Chicks album with lead singer Natalie Maines, Wide Open Spaces. I already had Home and Fly, and so this was an easy buy to make. (However, to suit Saudi sensibilities, someone had given Emilie and Martie proper tops and longer sleeves with a big black pen.) And as I listened to this CD, I would come across that second-to-last track and think to myself, “this sounds awfully familiar.” A couple more listens as I thought: “This sounds like something Maria McKee might sing.”
And, top notch and eagle-eyed researcher that I am, I wandered through Windows Media player and found, in fact, that McKee did in fact write and record “Am I The Only One?” Some things don’t escape me for very long.
The Chicks version is quite a bit tamer than McKee’s. First, there is the first line: McKee starts out by telling us “There is no damn reason I should have to feel so alone” while Maines is only telling us “There is no good reason I should have to feel so alone.” McKee’s is less “country” than the Chicks’ version, which is as it should be. This is a song of heartache, and the Chicks are fairly faithful to McKee’s vision. This is a song about everything that can possibly go wrong in a relationship going wrong. There is anger, resignation, pleading in this song. I like Maines’ vocal, but she can really only pull the anger off well. McKee’s is more pleading, and this is really a song about pleading — “God help me, am I the only who feels this way?” I like how the Chicks dial back on the third verse, that adds something to the song missing in McKee’s version. But as much as I think the Chicks arranged this song better than McKee, she still sings it better than Maines. She feels this song in a way Maines doesn’t appear to.
I understand the Chicks have amped this song up a bit live, which is all for the good. Maines is a fine singer — I like her voice. But it doesn’t have the room McKee’s voice has. Few female voices do. (Honestly, what would Maria McKee do with “Blue Kiss”?) Maines can sing like a bad girl, but only the kind of bad girl who wanders over to the other side of the tracks every now and again to play cards and drink and fool around with the bad boys. She may even wake up a time or two on the wrong side of the tracks. But her home is clean, comfortable, safe, and the people there more or less love each other.
But McKee sings like she lives there. In the little tarpaper shack with the rusty car in front right next to the Cotton Belt tracks. Near the crossing where the signal doesn’t work right. With her unemployed, ex-con of a father, her thieving junkie brother, and the overly cute little sister who only saved herself from a life a white slavery by becoming a gangster’s moll. And any number of disreputable ne’er do wells who wander through. McKee sings like she has spent too many days waking up hungover, late for her really crappy job at the diner, needing to clean up the mess from last night’s festivities (cigarette butts in the beer bottles, dried vomit on the couch) and maybe even chase the likes of Maines out of her latest boyfriend’s bed. Her home is shabby, tattered, a mess, and half the time, some of the people who live there are in jail because they tried to kill some of the other people who live there.
In a different era, McKee would have overdosed on something before she reached 30. Thank God she didn’t.
So, here is McKee’s version of “Am I The Only One?” from her first solo album:
And here’s the version the Dixie Chicks recorded for Wide Open Spaces:
And here’s Lone Justice playing “I Found Love,” the only really good track off Shelter. This sounds like the album cut with a different vocal:
And here’s Lone Justice’s 1985 MTV hit, “Ways To Be Wicked.” I always liked the intro with her on the skateboard.
Oh, and while I’m at it, this is Game Theory playing “Erica’s Word,” the closest miss they had to a hit. From The Big Shot Chronicles. But the band in the video isn’t the band Scott recorded the album with.
I think that’s enough for today.