Sunday 22 August 2010

Maria McKee - Life is Sweet. An introduction

Maria McKee, Life is SweetI first became aware of Maria McKee sometime around the Spring of 1993 when I saw the video for her not-so-hit single I’m Gonna Soothe You on ITV’s The Chart Show. I have to admit, being the naive young thing I was, I was more taken with her happy smile and the frisky snails than the record itself. It was only later, when I heard the same song on the radio, that I noticed the ex-Lone Justice singer had a voice.

I mean, she really had a voice.

Then I heard her take on Goffin and King’s I Can’t Make It Alone and just the way she sang the word “always” was enough to make me hand over the money for the album. By the time Life is Sweet came out, three years later, I was a confirmed fan and the record did nothing to disabuse me of that emotion. While there were some who were alienated by the album - wanting yet another easily accessible collection of country blues songs - for me, with its jarring guitars, sweeping strings and determined psychodrama, it was by far the best thing I’d ever heard from her and remains to this day my favourite album of the 1990s.

Sadly, this enthusiasm wasn’t shared by the world at large. Despite some rave reviews, it sold poorly and led to Maria and Geffen Records going their separate ways. It just goes to show that people don’t always get the success they deserve and that, despite the album’s hopeful title, life is not always sweet.

Still, there’s that wonderful thing called the Internet, through which fans like me can express our love in ways we never could have done in the long ago past, and the hope that somehow, by a process of attrition, all resistance to Maria may one day be worn down and the whole world will come to love the album that can only be described in its own words as absolutely barking stars

That's what this blog is about. It's for me to share my thoughts on the album's various tracks and if, in that process, just one person is convinced to buy or (legally) download the thing, I'll feel my time here wasn't wasted.

And if not?

Well, like the characters in its songs, at least I'll have given vent to my obsession.

Saturday 21 August 2010


Life is Sweet kicks off as it means to go on, with a guitar chord that feels like you’re being stabbed in the forehead.

Actually, the stabbing analogy’s probably not a bad one, considering Scarlover seems to be about a relationship in which both parties get their kicks from mutual self-mutilation. “You turned the blade on me -- and I loved it,” declares McKee in a seemingly insane state of over-excitement.

Having said that, the fact McKee sings of being ugly inside suggests the damage being done by both parties may be psychological rather than physical. I hope so as that’s a more interesting and frankly less icky concept.

There’s a live version of Scarlover knocking around on Youtube which shows just how close to musical disaster and self-parody the song skirts, as Maria, with her then common lack of restraint, starts to sound dangerously like Boris Karloff as she sings the, “Ugly inside of me, taught me of beauty,” line but in the studio she stays just the right side of such silliness and thus it’s a great introduction to the album. Like the title track of Sgt Pepper, Scarlover's not the best song on the album but it is a pretty good one and, with its overwrought melodrama and lurid imagery, sets the tone for the rest of the record. Not to mention that, propelled by Ric Kavins’ drums and Maria’s guitar, the thing sweeps along on a tide of its own stop-for-nothing urgency and bristling energy. Right from the off you know this is an album that’s not going to compromise for anyone.

Friday 20 August 2010

This Perfect Dress

Track two of Life is Sweet sees McKee slow to a more stately but no less melodramatic pace as we get a lovely song about the joys of sewing.

Well. No. Clearly it’s not. It appears to be the tale of a woman making a dress from the skin of her dead lover. In this way McKee seems to be partly inspired by the classic movie/novel Silence of the Lambs.

Of course, this is only a guess on my part, the lyrics of This Perfect Dress being as resolutely opaque as those of most of Life is Sweet’s twelve offerings, and my guesses aren’t always to be relied upon. For years I was convinced Paul McCartney’s 1972 hit C Moon was a treatise on the fact that no matter how well we think we know someone the major part of them will always remain a mystery. This was based on the fact that a C-shaped moon is a crescent moon, the vast majority of its presence lying unseen.

As it turned out “C Moon” was simply McCartney’s shorthand for “cool”. This should serve as a warning that my stabs as to what this or any other songs on the album are about can never be more than open to question.

What isn’t in question is the hypnotic nature of This Perfect Dress, a song that rarely ventures far from its circular central melody whilst built on an endlessly repeating bassline that strongly mirrors the riff from the BeeGees’ hit Tragedy. Whether this “pilfering” was deliberate or not, I don’t know.

I like to think it is. Given This Perfect Dress’s stark and doom-laden feel, it’d certainly be an appropriate appropriation.

The track gives us McKee’s first guitar solo of the album and, while no one could label her guitar playing subtle, sophisticated, skillful or even inspired, its crudeness and uncompromising nature shows her sausage-fingered style to be perfect for an album that takes no prisoners.