You Gotta Sin to Be Saved (Geffen)
Maria McKee

By Bob Bahr

This album opens with "I'm Gonna Soothe You," a disarming seduction of a friend's man. Maria McKee sings:

Don't worry, I won't do you any harm

My touch is gentle, my body warm

Lift your head, feel my cool hand on your face

Let me kiss your tears away

If you let me in, honey let me stay

Lay your head on my breast

I'll do the rest.

She's not just after the "decent man" mentioned in that song. She's after you. And she'll get you, at least for a while.

If the listener's infatuation with ex-Lone Justice McKee holds up for 35 more minutes, You Gotta Sin to Be Saved is a winding, sun-dappled country road with alternative signposts. McKee's voice keeps your attention, even when it is more faltering than spellbinding. Look to the band, and you'll find a fine collection of session men and young bucks: drummer Jim Keltner, keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Marvin Etzioni, guitarists Gary Louris and Mark Olson from the Jayhawks, and even producer Don Was on bass for one track. Two guys from the Posies stop by for background vocals on "Only Once."

The band perfectly executes this Sixties-type blend of Joe Cocker soul, traditional country and Southern gospel, with Louris' distinctive, personal guitar work leaving the most legible fingerprints. Soulful vocal additions from Julia and Maxine Waters add considerable punch to "I'm Gonna Soothe You," "Why Wasn't I More Grateful (When Life Was Sweet)" and "I Forgive You."

After that bewitching first kiss ("I'm Gonna Soothe You"), McKee follows with Van Morrison's "My Lonely Sad Eyes." Her fresh reading of the 25-year-old song is fun and winning.

Unfortunately, the bottom falls out on the next cut. "My Girlhood Among the Outlaws" begins a string of songs drenched in clichés both musical and lyrical. "Only Once" is a good country song, but you can finish McKee's vocal lines for her — even if you've never heard the song. The lyrics there are sort of an alternative take on traditional country fare. "I Can't Make It Alone" sounds cliched because it was written by someone who created pop songs so good, they became clichés: Carole King.

"Precious Time" creates a thick mood, but the boring, obtuse lyrics fail to deliver the goods. Another Morrison song, "The Way Young Lovers Do," comes off quite differently than the first. At this point in the disc, a song from the master only underscores the weak songwriting surrounding it. The final cut, "You Gotta Sin to Be Saved," states the theme that the whole album has pointed to, and does so in a country rock fashion that screams retro. The sentiment is appropriately rascally and McKee and company deliver it like the full-bore finale it is. But it doesn't pack the punch that it should.

Amid this mixed collection is an uplifting ode to maddening love, "I Forgive You." The chorus soars, thanks to fine use of dynamics and background vocals (the Waters). The lyrics wander in and out of neurosis, of frightening dysfunction. This song could describe a lovers' spat over laundry detergent, yet it has enough nervous, irrational edge to explain why some women stay with abusive men. Wholly engaging.

You Gotta Sin to Be Saved is consistently amiable, with flashes of brilliance. Do it again, Maria. Return with the crack, comfortable band, but embrace the different. Loving Van Morrison then writing sub-par songs does not compute, especially when you have songs like "I Forgive You" and "I'm Gonna Soothe You" lurking inside of you.