Listening to Maria McKee, the Willard Grant Conspiracy and Nick Lowe

So I came back from the Maria McKee/Willard Grant Conspiracy concert at McCabe’s week before last with three CDs:

And since then, I’ve picked up another one I’d like to talk about, too: Nick Lowe’s “At My Age.”

Maria McKee

McKee’s concert was a big surprise to me, having been a fan of her long-ago band Lone Justice, which made me think I knew what she was still about: Americana, roots-rock, a hard-edged almost gospel sound. From the show, I realized she hasn’t abandoned those sounds so much as transcended them, mixing in songs that have more in common with Broadway or even classical art songs.

“Late December” is even more of a surprise. The title cut would not have been out of place on a Laura Nyro album. The song “Destine” could have come off a Queen album. She herself has compared this album to the late 70s phenom Meat Loaf, probably because of this cosmic romanticism and drama of songs like “One Eye on the Stars (One On the Grave).” But she also includes a version of a song she wrote during the Lone Justice days, “A Good Heart,” which demonstrates how her artistic leanings have been pretty consistent over the past 20+ years. Take away the twang, put in an electronic harpishord….

“Live in Hamburg” was recorded in 2003, and is mostly built around songs from “Life is Sweet,” her last album for a major commercial label. She has a larger band than the three-piece I saw. What this disk emphasizes is that Maria McKee is really, truly, a rock star. An uncompromising one, a writer of songs that make almost no concessions to fashion or appeasing an audience’s expectation, but an artist of boldness and charisma.

Because my son just saw “Jersey Boys,” we’ve been hearing a lot of Four Seasons music around our home. If you’re my age, you’ll remember that Four Seasons’ singles and albums would say, …featuring the “sound” of Frankie Valli, referring to his unusual voice and occasional leaps into falsetto. I love the unnecessary quote marks

I’m thinking Maria McKee should look at this “the ‘sound’ of…” idea as a marketing hook for her career. The greatness of her music derives most fundamentally from her amazingly versatile voice — her multi-octave range, her ability to sing in a variety of styles, her full dynamic range, literally from a whisper to a scream — which allows her to write songs with big melodies. She could well be the best pure singer I’ve ever heard.

So why not put a phrase like this on her future albums and tour promotions? Maria “The Voice” McKee. She needs a way to rise above the narrow categories and pigeon-holes of today’s pop music, because she obviously refuses to stick to any one genre longer than one album. Another strategy — a “duets” album with better known singers. Except I bet most singers would be afraid to put their voices up against hers.

The Willard Grant Conspiracy

willard-grant-conspiracy.jpgI wanted to make sure I wrote about “Let it Roll.” Based on my brief, really inadequate, mention of the Willard Grant Conspiracy’s incredible performance, I got a kind note from the band’s mastermind, Robert Fisher. In concert, it was just Fisher on acoustic guitar, with an electric guitarist and a bassist. He joked that, night-to-night, his lineup of musicians changes depending, in part, on the LA traffic. “On any given night, we might have 30 musicians on stage.” I laughed, not knowing what I was laughing at. Fisher, a large man with black-framed glasses and a commanding baritone, was clearly the focus. I assumed his name was Willard Grant. (Despite Google’s best efforts, I can’t figure out if there was a real Willard Grant. Maybe he was friends with Jethro Tull and Lynard Skynard, two people who also lent their names to rock bands.)

The album explains the joke, and then some. Fisher writes lush music for what really adds up to a rock orchestra — guitars, violins, a trumpet, keyboards — a very rich mix. Most of the songs are on the long side; more like short films. Tempos are mostly slow, almost hypnotic–although “Crush” blasts away like the Ramones, if the Ramones used trumpet and violin–and the lyrics are visually evocative. The opening cut, “From a Distant Shore” is a transfixing Civil War song that was also quite powerful onstage.

Responding to his e-mail, I told Fisher I thought the music on this album was like what would happen if Nick Cave had been lead singer for The Band. He liked that, but the more I listen, I realize I should’ve gone further and added “…and if this Nick Cave/The Band hybrid was hired by Ken Burns to do the soundtrack for a history of love and war in America.”

Nick Lowe

Some of you might remember Lowe only from his brief period of almost-stardom in the last 1970s, when he was producing Elvis Costello, performing “I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll” with Dave Edmunds, and marrying Johnny Cash’s stepdaughter. His first two solo albums were fun, full of knowing parodies of well-worn pop-rock styles, but the ones that came after struck me as half-assed. I got the impression he was somewhat of a cocaine casualty.

But beginning with “The Impossible Bird” in the early 1990s, he began one of the strongest comebacks of the rock era — mostly by avoiding rock altogether. His subject was love, from many angles, but mostly disappointment. The ironic lyrics of his early years were replaced by a disarming sincerity and woefulness. The sense of humor was still there, but the joke seemed to be on him. Like in this great lyric for “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide” from 2001’s “The Convincer.”

With a growing sense of dread
And a hammer in my head
Fully clothed upon the bed
I wake up to the world that lately I’ve been living in

There’s a cut upon my brow
Must have banged myself somehow
But I can’t remember now
And the front door’s open wide
Lately I’ve let things slide

I go to the bin, I throw the laundry in
And pick out the cleanest shirt
Then I tell myself again I don’t really hurt

Smoking I once quit
Now I got one lit
I just fell back into it
Along with my pride
Lately I’ve let things slide

The new album continues this theme and style, but subtly brings back Lowe’s penchant for musical parody. Only now, he’s makes affectionate fun of the 1960s other music, that silky stuff that used to be called “easy listening.” I hear bits and pieces of Liberace, Ray Conniff, the “countrypolitan” sound of Jim Reeves, the British crooner Matt Monro and, on “Not Too Long Ago,” some kind of whiter-than-white “let’s do the Twist” arrangement straight from the Peppermint Lounge.

The instrumentation is fuller than it’s been in the past. Most songs feature a horn section, and the production is more spacious, a little less Americana and a little more cocktail music. The tunes are generally a little more light-hearted — love wins out a few more times here than in Lowe’s previous three discs. But the song that’s getting the most attention is perhaps to bitterest song he’s ever done, “I Trained Her to Love Me.”

Do you see the way she lights up when I walk in a room?
That’s good
And the skip in her step when we’re both out walking in the neighborhood?

This one’s almost done. Now to watch her fall apart.
I trained her to love so I can go ahead and break her heart

You think that it’s depraved and I should be ashamed?
So what!
I’m only paying back womankind for all the grief I got

I’ve got the ladies believing forever I’ll be true
I trained her to love me. Now excuse me, I’ve got work to do.

Music behind this is a mid-tempo country beat on the acoustic guitar, with a Hammond organ quietly insinuating itself behind the more outrageous statements. The overall effect leaves you a little queasy. In a NY Daily News interview, Lowe said,

“The song gets the most unbelievable reaction when I sing it live,” Lowe says. “Most of the sisters know what I’m talking about and think it’s sympathetic. The males punch the air, as if I’m striking a blow for them. To play that song live is like chucking a hand grenade into the crowd.”

So if you love “Impossible Bird,” “Dig My Mood” and “The Convincer,” you will like this one, too. But you’ll definitely hit a few moments where you’re thinking, “Hmm. I don’t know about this guy.”

One thought on “Listening to Maria McKee, the Willard Grant Conspiracy and Nick Lowe

  1. Pingback: Why music obsessives should not get married « Accordions and Lace

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