A waif-ish pixie with a tornado-sized voice, Maria McKee burst onto the international stage in 1985 with her band Lone Justice. You’re forgiven if you didn’t notice, since their sales figures didn’t come close to matching the critical acclaim. Dubbed “Cowpunk” for their blend of country, folk, rock, and punk sounds, the band barely lasted two albums but served as a springboard for McKee’s subsequent solo career. This collection attempts to sum up the varied output of McKee and Lone Justice on a single disc, but ends up shortchanging both.
Lone Justice have already been anthologized with last year’s best-of compilation on Geffen, itself a somewhat redundant attempt at revisiting a band which only released two full length albums. For this new collection, seven of the 17 tracks are Lone Justice tunes. Despite their unnecessary repetition, the choices are good ones showcasing the early depth of McKee’s singing and songwriting voice. From the first album we get Tom Petty’s song, “Ways to Be Wicked,” and from the second, “Shelter,” and “Dixie Storms.” In retrospect, one hears the sound of a young singer finding her own way, something she accomplished most fully on the aching country ballad, “Don’t Toss Us Away.”
McKee’s solo albums haven’t met with any more commercial success than Lone Justice did, but she has followed a shifting muse to more soulful rock sounds while retaining her country sensibilities. And since her solo output has more than doubled that of her old band, why split the coverage here almost in half instead of including more of the later solo material? Not that there aren’t good choices made on what is included—though some are better than others. Solid tunes like the majestic “Absolutely Barking Stars,” are complemented by rarities such as the British single, “Sweetest Child,” where McKee sounds mostly out of place in an arrangement that smacks of early Sarah McLachlan. She is most effective on cuts like “Only Once,” a gospel-tinged soul workout that lets McKee stretch her emotive powers to their peak.
McKee is a still-evolving artist who has found multiple ways of expressing herself, as this varied collection illustrates. As if to punctuate her pent-up potential, the disc closes with the song that has probably brought her more financial support than anything else in recent years due to its inclusion on the mega-selling Dixie Chicks album Wide Open Spaces—“Am I the Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way)?” Probably not, but she may be the only one to ever express it in such a powerful way.
// Notes from the Road
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