By JAY ROBERTS
The Cassette Chronicles is a continuing series of mini reviews and reflections on albums from the 1980’s and 1990’s. The aim of this series is to highlight both known and underappreciated albums from rock, pop and metal genres from this time period through the cassette editions of their releases. Some of the albums I have known about and loved for years, while others are new to me and were music I’ve always wanted to hear. There will be some review analysis and my own personal stories about my connection with various albums. These opinions are strictly my own and do not reflect the views of anyone else at Limelight Magazine.
MARIA MCKEE – MARIA MCKEE (1989)
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the cover art to Maria McKee’s self-titled debut album is being undervalued.
The art is a simple portrait photo of the singer but the composition kind of makes it seem like it is a bit of an old-time photo. It’s visually striking and I know that when I first saw it, I was captivated by the picture alone. I actually had no earthly idea who Maria McKee was when I came across the cassette in the racks of the record shop I found myself perusing for some new music.
I had gone out to dinner with my family at one of the Ponderosa steakhouses. Right next door was a record shop so after dinner I went over and did some looking around. I ended up picking up two albums that night. The first was an album by the metal band Hallows Eve called Monument. Let’s just say there wasn’t anything all that memorable about that album other than the fact I bought it the same day as the Maria McKee album.
I was working my way through the racks of cassettes and I came across this album. I pulled it out because I didn’t recognize the name. And like a bolt of lightning, I saw the cover art. Again, I was totally captivated. I put it back on the rack as I continued shopping but I kept coming back to it because of the hauntingly beautiful nature of the cover art.
Despite not knowing what kind of music she played, I had to make the purchase. And then I got to hear her sing…
McKee’s solo debut came after the end of her band Lone Justice. They were what has been described at various junctures as cowpunk, Americana, country-rock and even alt-country if I’m not mistaken. The band released two albums but despite a stellar live reputation, the sales didn’t follow for whatever reason. I went back and got those albums and personally think they are spectacular but that’s just me being years too late once more.
As captivating as the cover art is, it didn’t prepare me in the least for what I was in for as I discovered McKee’s voice. She can sing like very few people I’ve ever heard in my life. She can rip out your throat with a ballsy rock style, soar to the angels with a powerful ethereal style for a ballad and pretty much anything in between those two points. Add in the fact that she’s an amazing lyricist and you have the initial idea of just how amazing I think she is.
The first side of the album opens with the jaunty uptempo number “I’ve Forgotten What It Was In You (That Put The Need In Me)”. Okay, brevity in choice of song titles is probably not one of her strong points but the song is fantastic.
Honestly, let’s just skip to the point. Each of the ten songs on the cassette is amazing. It is a rare thing for me to become so besotted with a performer from the very first time I hear them. Off the top of my head, I can only think of one other performer who did that for me and that was Beth Hart. And anyone who knows me knows how much I adore her. You can definitely include Maria McKee in that group too.
“To Miss Someone” is a cracker of tune where McKee’s ability to break your heart first comes into play. The material on the album ranges from that rocking upbeat sound to the balladry which stands out without being cloying. And then there are the pieces that seem like something out a stage musical or at least just a set piece that evokes a kind of place and time for the listener.
“Nobody’s Child” feels like that to me. It grabs you and transports you to some other place where it is just you and the song. I’m not sure if I can quite come up with a better description than that. If you listen, I think you’ll understand.
The last song on the first side of the album is called “Panic Beach” and no matter how many times I hear it, it feels like the first time. It is by far my favorite song from McKee’s solo career and it just strikes me as a kind of nostalgic look back to the days when you went off on a summer trip that marks a turning point in your life. The lyrics to this song are strangely poetic to me and tell a story that makes me wish it was the baseline for a movie. I’d love to see the characters come alive in person that inhabit the song.
Side two kicks off with “Can’t Pull The Wool Down (Over The Little Lamb’s Eyes)”, a song that finds McKee cutting loose vocally to a more rocking soundtrack. “More Than A Heart Can Hold” and “This Property Is Condemned” strike a chord with the vocals seeming both calm and strainingly intense at the same time.
Remember how I said McKee’s vocals feel like she is soaring to the angels? The song “Breathe” is probably the best example of that statement. On this song, McKee is ethereal beauty given form and voice. If I was to tie the cover art to one song on the album, this would be the one. It is just perfect.
The album closes with a cover of Richard Thompson’s “Has He Got A Friend For Me?” On the song, McKee is enthrallingly dynamic as she plays piano and captures a longing sense of desire or maybe desperation throughout the song.
I know that the majority of the albums that I write about in this series fall on the rock or metal side of the ledger. I will always consider myself a rock and metal fan first and foremost. But I like being able to showcase, on occasion, the other aspects of my musical fandom. And for me, there’s no better way to do so than to talk/write about the greatness of Maria McKee. She is without a doubt one of my favorite musical artists and if you check out this debut album from her, I think you will agree with that testimonial.
All that…from just a photo. Yes, a thousand words is definitely not enough.
NOTES OF INTEREST: I own this album not only on cassettte, but on vinyl and CD as well. The CD edition comes with a bonus track called “Drinkin’ In My Sunday Dress”. It’s an uptempo track that finds McKee inhabiting kind of a dissolute character as the song’s narrator. It’s a killer track that I always thought was slyly comedic as well.
Among the guests on the Maria McKee album are Robbie Robertson (he co-wrote the lyrics for “Nobody’s Child”), Richard Thompson who played guitar and mandolin and bassist Tony Levin from King Crimson and Peter Gabriel.
I have never seen McKee in live performance, the one time I had the chance the show was cancelled. McKee has acted in movies, composed soundtracks for those movies and done work as a writer. She’s worked with or had her songs covered by acts like U2, Robbie Robertson, The Dixie Chicks, Bette Midler and many more.
Maria McKee’s latest album came out on March 13th, 2020, and is called La Vita Nuova.