Posts Tagged ‘Absolutely Barking Stars’

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

To my ears and soul, Life Is Sweet is not just one of the greatest lost albums of all time, but one of the greatest, period. It’s glam. It’s rock. It’s operatic. It’s art.

The story behind it: While touring in support of her country-rock classic You Gotta Sin to Get Saved in 1993, one of the members of Maria’s band is said to have given her a mixtape of classic glam and glitter tunes. Maria listened. Loved. Obsessed. And then wrote and recorded a set of songs, released in 1996, that blended those glittery hues of yore with dramatic colors of her own design.

“Scarlover,” the opening track, is a great example. It’s rough, ragged and refined all at the same time, with guitars giving way to strings that give way to guitars, set to Maria’s seemingly stream-of-conscious admission that “ugly inside of me taught me of beauty/I wouldn’t trade that work of art.”

As a whole, the album explores self-doubt, self-loathing and, ultimately, self-acceptance. At times, yes, it’s stasis in darkness (aka Sylvia Plath set to song). More than that, however, it’s Maria McKee unshorn, seemingly exploring her rapid-cycle bipolar disorder in ways that both replicate it and make it relatable. It’s the Bowie homage “Absolutely Barking Stars” with lyrics that delve into yin-yang duality… 

…and the dramatic “I’m Not Listening,” in which she attempts to ignore the voices inside her head that are taunting and haunting her. 

The utterly catchy “Everybody” explores celebrity and Andy Warhol’s infamous “15 seconds of fame” maxim: “We’ve all been flirting/with the perfect day/when they think we’re perfect/Yeah, but who are they?” There’s also a flat-out incendiary guitar break:

“Carried” is another highlight:

And, of course, there’s the title track, which may well be the greatest song she’s yet written or recorded. 

Geffen, her record label, hated the album. AAA radio stations like WXPN, which embraced and promoted the hell out of You Gotta Sin, refused to play it. Some critics slammed it. Some fans did, too. Artistic growth often comes at a price, and in this case the cost was Maria’s major-label career. Life Is Sweet failed to sell, and she left Geffen not long thereafter. The album also fell out of print, and has never been reissued, even digitally. (A true crime against art.)

Twenty-plus years since its release, however, and it sounds as fresh and hauntingly familiar as it did upon first listen. If you like Anna Calvi, Bat for Lashes, and similar dramatic acts, seek it out. You won’t be disappointed.

The track list:

  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

Our stop at the Boot & Saddle to see Juliana Hatfield two weeks back reminded me of the North Star Bar, where I saw the Absolutely Sweet Maria McKee on her much-anticipated (by me, at least) High Dive tour. The Boot & Saddle, for those who’ve never been there, is your basic bar with a sizable backroom and stage; and the North Star, which closed in October 2015, was your basic bar with a sizable side room and stage. Both fit about the same number of bodies, I think: 150, maybe 200 if the fire marshal’s not looking. The main difference: at the North Star, at least on this night, the sound from the bar bled into the music room.

At the time, the Little Diva and her band were on tour in support of High Dive, her first release since her genre-bending 1996 album Life Is Sweet. Gone, still, was the country-rock overtones of her early days; instead, the CD tempered the glam and glitter of Life with elements of baroque and operatic rock. To quote (and lightly edit) the review I left on Amazon in 2006: “The tracks, in total and apart, have a narcotic-like effect; one listen and you’ll be hooked. ‘In Your Constellation’ has a Neil Young-like vibe, a la ‘Like a Hurricane,’ that sends me flying into the stratosphere and higher; ‘Be My Joy’ is, well, just plain intoxicating; and the dramatic ‘Non Religious Building’ is as potent as songs come. I was hesitant about the remake of ‘Life Is Sweet’/‘Afterlife’ … but, ya know what? It’s as good as the original – and the backing vocals are to die for, both there and elsewhere. My album of the year for 2003.”

As Diane can attest, I played it the way I play most albums I fall for – over and over again. In the month and a half between its April 22nd release and this show…did I listen to anything else? Of my own accord, no. With Diane? Yes. (Such sacrifices are what sustain a marriage, after all.) By the night of the show, I was primed. Bouncing-off-the-walls primed. Maybe Maria’s career hadn’t taken flight in the way she’d hoped since Life Is Sweet, but the new music she was making meant (and still means) as much to me as the alt.country prototype she built with Lone Justice and on her first two solo albums.

Anyway, of the show: Certain memories survive. I remember her guitar soaring through “Absolutely Barking Stars” along with her voice, which – I swear – felt like a ghost inhabiting my body. It was deliciously intense, in other words. Here she is playing it a few months later in Hamburg (from the 2004 Live in Hamburg CD):

“High Dive,” as on album, was brilliant:

“Shelter,” one of my all-time favorite songs, was another highlight. Here she is from a few years later performing it:

“Breathe,” too, was mesmerizing – but when is it not? It was sparse and dramatic, similar to this performance from 10 years earlier…

“In Your Constellation” was simply phenomenal; it swirled like the cosmos through the room. Afterwards, she talked about Bruce Springsteen and his influence on her music, singing a snippet of… “Rosalita,” says Diane…before launching into a dramatic reading of his “Candy’s Room.”

The philosophical “Something Similar” closed the main portion of her set.

Unlike the Boot & Saddle, where the entrance to the stage is basically through the audience, the North Star Bar had stairs with a slight overhang leading off the stage. As Maria and band were leaving, she hit her head – a loud thwack followed by her “ow!” echoed through the room. She returned a few moments later – and sang a song so good she recorded it twice: “Life Is Sweet.” She then left the stage, no doubt making sure to duck before descending the steps.

The (possible) set:

  1. I Can’t Make It Alone
  2. Absolutely Barking Stars
  3. From Our TV Teens to the Tombs
  4. High Dive
  5. Be My Joy
  6. To the Open Spaces
  7. Shelter
  8. Dixie Storms
  9. Breathe
  10. Non Religious Building
  11. I’m Awake
  12. In Your Constellation
  13. Candy’s Room
  14. Something Similar
  15. (Encore) Life Is Sweet