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RECORD RACK

MARIA McKEE "Maria McKee." Geffen *** 1/2:POP STARS ***** Great Balls of Fire **** Knockin' On Heaven's Door *** Good Vibrations ** Maybe Baby * Ain't That a Shame

June 04, 1989|MIKE BOEHM

McKee's former band Lone Justice went from the pinnacle to the pits: an exhilarating debut album, followed by the stilted, overblown "Shelter," a sophomore slump that was just about unforgivable considering McKee's immense raw talent.

But all is forgiven now. The range and ambition on McKee's first solo album are striking, and her powerful voice is fully under control as she renders over-brimming emotions without resorting to over-singing. McKee works within the conventions of country music, gospel and R&B, but her mastery of so many forms is far from conventional.

She treads on risky ground with a couple of derivative dramatic set pieces: "Panic Beach" closely quoting early Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison, "This Property Is Condemned" echoing Tom Waits' tales of the down-and-out. But McKee pulls them off by digging deep into the songs' characterizations.

The album swings between portraits of women reaching to find resources of strength and spiritually informed love, or groping in an emotional darkness of unhealthy obsession or shattered self-esteem. The lost souls have the last word, in an exquisitely simple rendition of Richard and Linda Thompson's heartbreaking "Has He Got a Friend for Me?" Supported by an unegotistical array of all-star players, McKee has jumped out of her Lone Justice slump and into the front rank of the women-in-rock movement.

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