I prefer my women in music extremely talented and wildly unpredictable. Is she country? Is she rock & roll? Is she pop? Is she soul?
Those are the questions that pop into one’s head while listening to the music of Maria McKee, particularly her 1993 opus, You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, one of my Top 5 favorite albums by female singers in the ’90s — right up there with Annie Lennox’s Diva, k.d. lang’s Ingenue, Neneh Cherry’s Homebrew and Joni Mitchell’s Turbulent Indigo. (PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love, Bjork’s Post, Sarah McLachlan’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, Enya’s Shepherd Moons and Fiona Apple’s decade-closing When the Pawn… would probably round out my Top 10.)
Unfortunately, being wildly unpredictable, thrilling as it might get aurally, often leads you nowhere commercially. (Just ask N’Dea Davenport). The top 40 establishment in the U.S. has always preferred its women when they fit neatly into boxes, and McKee’s too comfortable and seemingly content shape-shifting to worry about fitting square pegs into round holes.
That’s not to say that she hasn’t enjoyed occasional success over the years. Feargal Sharkey had a No. 1 UK single with her song “A Good Heart” in 1985, around the same time that Rosanne Cash was climbing to No. 1 on the U.S. country singles chart with “Never Be You,” a song McKee sang but didn’t write (Tom Petty and her one-time boyfriend Benmont Tench did) for the 1984 Streets of Fire soundtrack. (She was 19 at the time.)
As the frontwoman of Lone Justice, McKee grazed around the outskirts of the Top 40 in 1986, with the single “Shelter.” In 1990, solo, she went all the way to the top of the UK singles chart for four weeks with “Show Me Heaven,” her contribution to the Days of Thunder soundtrack.
Four years later, director Quentin Tarantino handpicked her song “If Love Is a Red Dress (Hang Me in Rags)” for Pulp Fiction, and in 1995, she nearly topped Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Songs chart via Bette Midler, whose cover of McKee’s “To Deserve You” (from Bette of Roses, which also featured McKee’s “The Last Time”) hit No. 2. (Talent apparently runs in her family: The late Love guitarist Andrew MacLean, who wrote and sang the band’s 1967 psychedelic-rock classic “Alone Again Or,” was her half-brother.)
Yes, McKee is all over the place. That’s not to say that You’ve Got to Sin to Get Saved, or McKee, is unfocused. I can think of few, if any, other singers who can record an album consisting of such disparate material — including covers of Van Morrison (two of them, “My Lonely Sad Eyes” and “The Way That Old Lovers Do,” in which she perfectly pinpoints the song’s frantic, desperate pulse and sends it racing in a way that neither Jeff Buckley nor its author’s own Astral Weeks version quite did), Carole King and Gerry Goffin (“I Can’t Make It on My Own,” a tough admission of romantic vulnerability that matched Dusty Springfield’s great album-closing version on Dusty in Memphis), Jayhawks-style country-rock (“Precious Time,” co-written by that band’s Gary Louris and Mark Olson), and her own original compositions — sound like a cohesive whole.
I once saw McKee in concert at Irving Plaza shortly after the release of You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, and she blew me away the way she rocked both the piano and the guitar, all the while never missing a beat or a breath vocally. That girl could sing (and play), I thought to myself. And as if to prove me right, she continued doing it for an hour or so more, and there wasn’t a back-up dancer, a costume change or a guest rapper in sight. (Look, Ma, no Auto-Tune!)
Just a woman, her piano, her guitar, her voice, and her music, flying, soaring, never landing in the same spot twice.
“I Can’t Make It Alone”
“My Girlhood Among the Outlaws”
“Why Wasn’t I More Grateful (When Life Was Sweet)”
“I’m Gonna Soothe You”