Album of the Week, September 15: Life Is Sweet by Maria McKee

McKeeLifeIsMaria McKee grew up in Los Angeles and started her musical career early. In her teens, she performed in a duo with her older brother, Bryan MacLean (most famous as guitarist and occasional vocalist for Love). A country music fan, she dived into the burgeoning LA roots-rock scene, forming Lone Justice when she was 18. The band built a significant following and industry buzz, signing with Geffen on Linda Ronstadt’s endorsement. Unfortunately, the hype overwhelmed the promise, and a mixture of heavy-handed production, too many guests, and label interference shattered the band. She rebuilt the group for a second disc, but it went nowhere and she went solo. Maria McKee came out 1989 to positive reviews; her second solo venture, You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, captured the sound that should have been Lone Justice and made a number of critics lists for 1993. Three years later, she released her masterpiece.

Title Life Is Sweet
Act Maria McKee
Label Geffen Release Date March 26, 1996
Producer Maria McKee, Bruce Brody and Mark Freegard
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Scarlover
  2. This Perfect Dress
  3. Absolutely Barking Stars
  4. I’m Not Listening
  5. Everybody
  6. Smarter
  7. What Else You Wanna Know?
  8. I’m Awake
  9. Human
  10. Carried
  11. Life Is Sweet
  12. Afterlife

The cover is a good indicator of the album’s themes. A sepia-tinted photo, the front shows a group of men and women that could be almost any bunch ready to go out in the 30s. The full four-panel shot, however, reveals that this is a circus crowd, revealing diverse personalities. Life Is Sweet demonstrates how one person carries all these spirits and more.

Scarlover sets the musical tone — a dark, brooding number that celebrates the pain that we survive and how it can help us grow. It’s a potent, personal lyric that shows off depth McKee’s voice — always a complexly beautiful instrument — had only hinted at before. This Perfect Dress, on the other hand, celebrates the costumes we wear and the illusions we craft. They are as significant as the inner depths, and McKee revels in the dichotomy.

Although it isn’t the title track, Absolutely Barking Stars is clearly the album’s manifesto — McKee makes that explicit by providing lyrics for only this song on the album liner. After the strong set-up pair, this amazing song celebrates the dualities that make us human and the kinds of madness that are signs of our basic humanity. It’s a wonderful celebration and one of the best things McKee has written or sung. I’m Not Listening is an almost childish chant, a refusal to take in the negative messages that the world offers too frequently. Brilliantly sequenced, it boldly completes McKee’s declaration of independence.

Everybody revels in the knowledge that each of us has a moment (or more) in the sun, while Smarter acknowledges the need for partners (of all sorts) who complement us and bolster our weak spots. They form a nice pair and provide a lighter spot in this meditative song cycle. What Else You Wanna Know? is the perfect centerpiece, a strong take-me-as-I-am song and a great performance from McKee and her band.

With I’m Awake, she moves outward from the more personal reflections, owning her role in the wider world. A simple, quieter song, it works nicely to move the cycle one more, significant turn. Human looks at how this plays out in one-on-one relationships as she owns her mistakes in putting a lover on a pedestal. In the ed, she allows him to be as complex as she has celebrated herself. Those reflections build into Carried, a realization that everything the album has studied and celebrated is an accumulation of experience starting with the day of one’s birth. It’s a heavy song beautifully delivered.

McKee wraps up this cycle in fine style. In a series of vignettes, Life Is Sweet celebrates the broken and downtrodden, allowing each person their own grace and need for acceptance and joy. A powerful song, it draws the themes of the disc into a potent whole, unexpectedly moving to the third person as an expression of McKee’s place in the great, diverse human crowd. Afterlife is an instrumental coda, a charming wrap-up as the curtain comes down on this intense exploration of our shared humanity. Life Is Sweet is a difficult listen but richly rewarding and a remarkable demonstration of a talented musician at the height of her powers.

FURTHER LISTENING: McKee’s debut is a great collection of songs. It features a wide range of guest stars, but handles the huge cast far better than Lone Justice did. Marred only slightly by Mitchell Froom’s notoriously heavy production, it’s a fine album. You Gotta Sin to Get Saved is her most celebrated album; it’s a great collection, but feels a bit too all-the-same to me. McKee is a sporadic performer, usually taking a few years between releases. All of her 21st Century output is worth a listen; the best of the set is 2003’s High Dive.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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