After seven years without releasing an album, former Lone Justice frontwoman Maria McKee has broken her silence with High Dive (Viewfinder), her fourth solo effort and a laid-back retreat from the complex and heavily produced sound of 1996’s Life Is Sweet (Geffen). And that’s not the only change: McKee has also transformed her once-blond curls into raven locks, and she’s swapped her usual country leanings for a less twangy, more singer-songwriterly approach. She’ll bring her new band to the Paradise this Saturday to support High Dive.
" I average an album about every four years, " she says over the phone from LA. " That’s just my rate of productivity. I don’t really know how to explain it. But I’m all about the new Maria. I turned the corner and just never looked back. "
In the years since the commercially unsuccessful Life Is Sweet came out, McKee has been through a lot. After she lost her deal with Geffen and married bass player Jim Akin, the couple started Viewfinder Records, a home-based label and studio in LA, where they had the luxury of writing and recording the new album at their own pace. They also had the good fortune of nailing down a distribution deal for Viewfinder with Mailboat, Jimmy Buffett’s company. While McKee was working with Akin on High Dive, the Dixie Chicks covered one of her old Lone Justice tunes, " Am I the Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way). " And she turned out a few new recordings for soundtracks, one for Songcatcher (Vanguard) in 2001 and two for Evangeline Made: A Tribute to Cajun Music (Vanguard) in 2002.
McKee’s latest career moves seem a lot like the ones Aimee Mann made when she parted ways with Geffen. Both emerged out of successful bands in the ’80s, only to deliver commercial flops as solo artists before founding their own labels and finding their true voices. And just as Mann has both a husband and a playing partner in Michael Penn, McKee has Akin by her side both in and out of the studio. The couple wrote, played, sang, and recorded everything on the new album with the exception of the drums (played by Tom Dunne) and the string and horn parts. It worked for Mann, and it seems to be working for McKee.
The key to High Dive is McKee’s decision to drop the country pose of her Lone Justice years. The new album’s re-recorded version of Life Is Sweet’s title track is just as approachable as the down-home original. Not that the first one was off the mark — in fact, the new version sounds a little flat without the crisp climaxes that distinguished the chorus from the verses. But the song now has a universal appeal that should keep McKee from being pushed off to the alterna-county side of the road.
Like Life Is Sweet, High Dive is full of theatrics. But now it sounds as if Stephen Sondheim might be one of her main influences. Gone are the pristine, high-note-filled vocals; instead, McKee relies on the deeper timbres of her powerful voice to get her point across. " From Our T.V. Teens to the Tomb, " " No Gala, " and " My Friend Foe " have slick guitar climaxes, polished string arrangements, and dramatic vocals. On " Be My Joy, " she reveals her sultry side against a discofied backbeat and sexy string embellishments. And for anyone who misses the old McKee, there’s " Worry Birds, " which closes the album with the four minutes of country-styled music.
Despite all the changes, McKee has fond memories of her Lone Justice days. And now that the Dixie Chicks have taken a stab at one of the band’s old tunes, she says she’d even be willing to re-record a Lone Justice tune or two for a soundtrack if anyone were interested. She hasn’t always felt that way — she admits that there have been times when she’s aimed to distance herself " from all things Lone Justice or even roots-oriented. " In that sense, ending High Dive on a country note might be a symbolic gesture. As McKee puts it, " Now, I’m just sort of embracing all things. "
Maria McKee headlines the Paradise, 969 Commonwealth Avenue, this Saturday, June 14. Call (617) 423-NEXT.