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NO HOLDING BACK : Maria McKee Sings Boldly and Beautifully, but Would Be Better If She Knew Her Limits

May 20, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

There is a scene in Edmund Spenser's Elizabethan epic, "The Fairie Queen," in which Britomart, the questing woman-warrior heroine of the piece, receives encouragement--and a warning.

"Be bold. Be bold . . . . Be not too bold."

Maria McKee, a pop heroine armed with exceptional talent, might heed that advice.

Few rockers have a bolder stage presence than McKee. When she fronted Lone Justice during the mid-'80s, she was a tiny but riveting figure who would work herself into a stomping, whirling frenzy. And few singers have the audacity, or ability, that McKee has shown in emulating great soul singers and great country singers.

However, there is such a thing as being too bold. On her upcoming album, "You Gotta Sin to Get Saved," McKee tries at certain points to emulate Aretha Franklin scaling her most dizzying peaks, and Van Morrison at his incomparable best. Inevitably, she fails. (The album, her first in four years, is due out next month; McKee and her band, which includes three fellow-alumni of Lone Justice, are playing a series of pre-release warm-up dates, including shows Saturday and Sunday at the Coach House.)

When McKee tries to take flight with spontaneous upper-register soul-keening, she wants to be a second Aretha. Suffice to say that she isn't, and that she would be better off having recognized her limitations rather than venturing into a range where she sounds thin and shrill.

McKee also takes two cracks at singing like Morrison, covering "Lonely Sad Eyes," by the Irish master's first band, Them, and "Young Lovers Do," from his legendary early solo album, "Astral Weeks." The more she tries to emulate Morrison in performances patterned closely after the originals, the more you realize that nobody can.

But those too-bold sallies aside, McKee, making a comeback at 28 after spending several musically active but low-profile years in Ireland and England, re-establishes herself by doing things quite nicely in ways that are more comfortably her own. She still sings vibrant soul and vibrant country, writing or choosing songs whose grit and depth of feeling eclipse the glossy commercial manifestations that rule the two genres today.

McKee gets her soul inspiration from the tough Memphis sound of Franklin and Otis Redding (whose highly dramatic style of song arrangement she adapts, adding one striking new touch--a satisfyingly raw, grainy lead guitar).

Her country ballads call to mind the simple, unadorned honesty and plaintiveness of Emmylou Harris. The new album doesn't betray even a hint of the slickness and contrivance that marred McKee's career low point to date, Lone Justice's disappointing second album, "Shelter."

As the album's title suggests, McKee's new songs frequently are concerned with matters of sin and redemption--but in a romantic, rather than a religious context.

On the exemplary honky-tonk lament, "Only Once," a woman makes a crucial mistake in love and it darkens the rest of her life. Elsewhere, relationships turn into painful duets of co-dependence ("I Forgive You" and "I Can't Make It Alone," a Goffin-King composition previously recorded by Dusty Springfield), or sink into depths of isolation and pathetic denial ("Precious Time," written by two members of the Jayhawks).

With the vaguely autobiographical "My Girlhood Among the Outlaws," McKee offers a vision of youthful mistakes leading to growth and reconciliation.

There's a sense of return in her reunion with old band mates Marvin Etzioni and Don Heffington, the original Lone Justice bassist and drummer, who played on the new album and are part of McKee's touring band. Also on hand is Bruce Brody, the former Lone Justice keyboards player who accompanied McKee on her 1989 solo debut album.

Etzioni, who has released his own album under the moniker Marvin the Mandolin Man, doubles as backing player and opening act.

On the rowdy, humorous closing song, "You Gotta Sin to Get Saved," McKee does a near-ringer vocal imitation of Ronnie Spector while playing the part of a less-than-constant lover. She confesses a need to "tame my wicked side," but seems to be having too much fun sinning to rush into right behavior.

Straying from soul to country to rock, McKee sins against the conventions of stylistic continuity. But that never was a virtue for the bold.

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