Monday, February 4, 2013

Grazin' the Edge

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Lone Justice. Like Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True, this is a debut record in which a strong, charismatic lead personality transcends the largely indifferent playing of a band for hire; unlike that debut, though, the singing is miles better and the songwriting is much more uneven.

On the one hand, the ultra-confident, gospel-tinged wail and warp of lead vocalist Maria McKee is amazing, riveting, traffic-stopping--it's a vocal debut roughly akin to the one by that other Elvis. But only a handful of songs here really stand up: two rock-soul singles ("Sweet, Sweet, Baby" and "Ways To Be Wicked") and two country ballads ("Don't Toss Us Away" and "You Are the Light"). That first pair are produced and arranged within an inch of their lives--you can really tell that producer Jimmy Iovine felt like these were the hits and lavished all his attention on them, at the expense of the rest--and the latter two are simple, straightforward, coulda-been-one-take renditions, and all the better for it. The rest of these tunes get by, to the extent they do, on McKee's swagger and a certain sense of promise--the feeling that this band will work out the kinks, their influences are in the right place (Springsteen, The Blasters, Woody Guthrie), and damn that girl can sing. Along with other L.A.-based country/roots acts of the early '80s, I was totally on board with where Lone Justice would take me next.

Alas, their second and last album, Shelter, turned up roughly the same ratio of great to so-so songs. I went on to adore McKee's first two solo albums, and though I had a learning curve with the ones after that--as with k.d. lang, it took me a while to get used to her dropping the country/roots trappings I'd first fallen for and trying on other colors--I would now call myself a fan of all her work. It's still a shame that a singer this great (and she's still one of the best around) has never found a great band to match her, and that a singer this winning and versatile has struggled all along to find a wide audience. I once thought this record had introduced me to a promising band that might one day be an essential one; that it instead only ended up introducing me to its frontwoman's formidable and under-sung talents is not a bad consolation prize.

Cinco Paul I heartily second every single thing you said.
Shawn Pogatchnik Still burnin' a flame for Ms. McKee, I see...
Mark de la Viña Though the band was indifferent, they were actually pretty amazing with the likes of Marvin Etzioni and future X guitarist Tony Gilkyson in the lineup. And yes, those singles still hold up. Thanks for the reminder!
Rob Weinert-Kendt @Mark: Yeah, they were great live, and others have pointed out that they made some great demos before their first studio album. This page is a treasure trove/wormhole of vintage LJ material:
Mark de la Viña So cool. I was recently reminded of them when a bluegrass band at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival pulled out a cover of "Soap Soup Salvation." Since you are on an '80s kick, are you about to start writing an appreciation for grebo? Thanks for the link!

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