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Call Her Inspirational

November 02, 1986|CHRIS WILLMAN

"SHELTER."Lone Justice. Geffen.

Should Grammy voters start taking award titles literally, they'd have an easy choice in the Best Inspirational Performance category this year: The climactic moment on the new Lone Justice album is a song titled, appropriately enough, "Inspiration," and it approaches what the scenario might've sounded like if Janis Joplin fronted the Rolling Stones on a gospel number. Maria McKee goes to the wailing wall here and asks to be "filled up"; the overflow spills onto the vinyl.

The rest of the album rarely reaches such an urgent level, but it too is overcome with the inspiration of romance and religion. In the past, McKee was famous for singing quaint populist narratives; on this second album, though, you're more likely to hear her cry out against "casting away the rhythm of eternity's fugue" (say what ?) than fret about "steaks gettin' cold on the table." It's much less roots-conscious or specific--both in its more mainstream musical styles and in its more spiritual themes.

That dirty word mainstream will catch in the throat of many a longtime Lone Justice fan, and their concerns are worth considering: Perhaps it would have been prudent to retire the band name and call this a Maria McKee solo record, given the personnel turnover, and considering that the new album belies little scent of the original outfit's country-rock base.

But "Shelter" doesn't have the smell of a sell-out. If some of the charm and character of the old music have been sacrificed, the new music shows surprising maturity and depth. And while there may be a more cerebral kind of seriousness in these lyrics, what McKee does to them with her voice--not just the famous high-range wailing, but in the trickier, more subdued passages as well--reels with pure instinct .

She makes any song, even those as commercial and structured and relatively unhistrionic as most of these, into a "singer's showcase" without ever seeming the show-off. For that, she's pretty obviously the best--or at least most inspired, if you will--all-purpose female vocalist in rock right now.

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