Being a Maria McKee fan is a mostly thrilling, but occasionally bewildering, journey. Is she a cowgirl, a glam rocker, a sensitive singer-songwriter, or the next Andrew Lloyd Weber? Well, that depends on which of her CDs is in your player right now. Or, if you’re listening to her new album, “all of the above” would be the best answer you could choose. Well, okay, Late December doesn’t especially reflect her early days as the singer for country-ish ‘80s college rock band Lone Justice. The record is, however, a culmination of most everything she’s done since (barring the track she contributed to the atrocious Tom Cruise flick Days of Thunder).
Her middling solo debut was McKee trying to find her own voice, which she did on her very fine follow-up, 1993’s You Gotta Sin to Get Saved. Still rootsy, she branched out into R&B, while also delving deeper into a purer kind of country than she had with Lone Justice. In 1996, she made a huge left turn, cranking up the distortion, ratcheting up the dramatic capabilities of her powerful voice, and stepping into the platforms of Ziggy Stardust for the surprisingly rocking, and quite accomplished, Life Is Sweet (from which came “Absolutely Barking Stars”, a live version of which appears below).
After disappearing for a stretch in order to disentangle herself from her contract with Geffen, McKee returned in 2003 with High Dive, which brought an even greater sense of drama to her sound. Relying heavily on strings and horns, some of the material ventured close to Broadway territory, but her alt edge kept the record reined in. Late December is a continuation of this trend. As such, it mostly ignores her output from the previous two years, her excellent return-to-roots 2005 album, Peddlin’ Dreams, and the thoroughly self-explanatory Maria McKee Live: Acoustic Tour 2006. Just as we’d all gotten adjusted to the idea that maybe Maria had traded in her copy of Jesus Christ Superstar, she returns in 2007 with her rangiest, weirdest, most theatrical album yet.
That these recordings are also relatively unadorned causes some of McKee’s songwriting ambitions to feel hammy and precariously naked, especially in the record’s latter half. But, wait, let’s talk about the really good first half first. I like Maria McKee a lot and would have loved nothing more than for this whole disc to maintain the excellent form of its first seven tracks.
The opening title cut recalls the white girl soul of Laura Nyro, with sustained piano chords, finger snaps, and a slow gospel mood. “No Other Way to Love You” captures the essence of all that is McKee within a single track, quite effectively moving from simple and mellow to thunderous, loose, and sweeping. The next number goes back more than 20 years. I will admit to still having a soft spot for Undertones singer Feargal Sharkey’s self-titled, adult pop solo album, which contains his rendering of “A Good Heart”. McKee was a prodigious writer to have composed a tune as lovely and classically sturdy as this in her very early 20s. Finally, I can set aside Feargul’s slick cover and enjoy Maria’s own soulful take. A little further on, “Destine” begins venturing out onto the Broadway stage, with a Brechtian piano-and-vocal intro that verges on cheesy, but the song’s journey into raw art-punk conjures the best of early ‘70s Roxy and Bowie. Its follow-up, the beautiful and haunted “My First Night without You”, would have been at home on Peddlin’ Dreams.
And that’s all, happy ending, hit the eject, no more songs folks, see ya later. Oh. Right. I already spilled the beans on Late December going downhill. The decline begins right here, 49 seconds into “Scene of the Affair”. Suddenly, the empress has lost her clothes (no, you perv, not in a sexy way), and I’m reminded of the community theater rock opera a friend recently performed in. The band played admirably, but it was still, you know, community theater. Kurt Weill bobs his head up in the just plain odd “Cat in the Wall”, the subject of which truly is conveyed by the title. By the time the bombast of “One Eye on the Sky (One on the Grave)” is over, your head might be swirling too much to appreciate the closing track, “Starving Pretty”, which finds success in the album’s earlier formula of rock meets singer-songwriter meets gospel.
I truly long to rate Late December higher than I’m going to. McKee offers some terrific material here, but the album’s inconsistencies are glaring and its rough patch too rough to ignore. Nonetheless, her commitment to following her muse and stretching the ol’ envelope (and all those other clichés of artistic process) is admirable, and I’d rather see her reach and miss than not reach at all. But effort alone doesn’t make for a great album. In that regard, Late December misses the mark, even though its rewards are many.