Maria McKee

High Dive

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Seven years between albums is a long time. But in her quest for artistic freedom and total control over her own material, Maria McKee took the time to get out from under the Geffen imprint, write a host of new songs, and create a new band. And as is her wont, her effort on High Dive is something as different from her earlier recordings as they were from one another. In 1996, when Life Is Sweet was released, McKee had left behind the country-rock that had established her for a raucous and wooly aggressive rock sound where she played all the guitars -- in overdrive. That record was full of grief, rage, and the desire to shed her skin. It was a misunderstood work of high, inimitable art. High Dive is by turns a gorgeous rock record and a Baroque pop masterpiece. Strings, horns, and a full-on rock band grace its 14 tracks -- including an absolutely stunning redo of Life Is Sweet's title track. McKee has always possessed two gifts as a lyricist: her ability to make all images completely vivid and her naked compassion and empathy. All of the songs here are loaded with both. Her melodies are positively irresistible and infectious, and her lyrical tomes are full of everything from the longing for freedom -- "To the Open Paces," to codependence, "Be My Joy," to a near Buddhist sense of loving kindness, "Life Is Sweet," to all notions of love and loss. All of these have come to be expected from McKee, who is one of the most underrated lyricists pop music has ever produced. But on High Dive, it's the sound of the record that is also stunning. Along with Jim Akin, McKee employed a virtual string orchestra and a group of chamber horns and arranged them for a sound that is as timeless as it is current. There are echoes of Scott Walker's first four albums ("We Pair Off"), the Kinks' preservation (the title track), Love's more baroque psychedelic textures ("Love Doesn't Love"), Brian Wilson's tenderness ("After Life"), and Jimmy Webb's musical and poetic excesses -- yes, that's good -- ("Non Religious Building"), and countless other influences. But these groundings in the popular vernacular are merely signposts. This sound is McKee's alone, and ultimately, despite the range of emotions she addresses and conveys, this is an album about amorous love, full of its dizzying heights and its turbulent spirals into the abyss of loss. Its particular gift is how, no matter how dark or even horrifying the lyrics are, the music is upbeat, full of a life-affirming transcendence that makes it the ultimate statement from love's battlefield, where scars and wounds are the gateways to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human; they add depth and dimension in such grandeur, no matter how tortured, that you're still willing to risk everything to find its promise. McKee is never morbid, just unflinching, and High Dive is a leap from the cliff of who she was and was perceived to be into being what she is: an artist of considerable vision, passion, and both musical and literary acumen. That these songs, in all of their sophistication and layered surfaces, can communicate so immediately and accessibly is an achievement; that they do so without looking away from the bottomless cavern of the heart's labyrinthine journey is an artistic achievement and one of the last slices of rock roll poetry at its most honest and direct. McKee's High Dive is simply an awe-inspiring album and easily her finest recorded moment. ~ Thom Jurek, Rovi

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