I’ve just finished listening to Maria McKee’s Peddlin’ Dreams twice through, and the experience was like being reunited with an old, dear friend you haven’t seen in years.

McKee’s performances her make her a strong contender for the year’s strongest vocal performance (alongside Karin Bergqust of Over the Rhine). Even though it’s largely a collaborative effort with husband and producer Jimmy Akin, McKee sounds more comfortable, and the songs sound more lived-in; and, in fact, the opener is something she wrote about twenty years ago. They’ll make for a great live show.

She’s tried on a lot of styles over the years, but this is the approach that most suits her–a uniquely personal brand of Americana-rock that allows her voice, one in a class with Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Patti Griffin, to soar. Peddlin’ Dreams feels more like a Lone Justice album than anything she’s released since the unfortunate demise of that legendary band. It’s mostly an acoustic affair with occasional and thrilling resurgences of the anarchic electric guitar stylings McKee unleashed in the fiery art-rock of Life is Sweet. A couple of tracks are as simple and elegant as the work on her self-titled solo debut. There are only a few hints of the emotional histrionics and showtune-style bombast of High Dive, and that’s a relief. (McKee was clearly venturing into territory that meant something to her on that record, but it was so ambitious and melodramatic that we lost touch with the subtle poetry that has given previous records such heart and soul.) McKee has said in interviews that this record was recorded far more spontaneously than High Dive, and that explains a great deal–every inch of High Dive felt deliberate, where this one feels more authentic and exquisitely rough-edged.

Some of the songs, like the soulful, introspective opener “Season of the Fair,” the anthemic Neil-Young-rock of “Sullen Soul,” and the poignant poetry of “People in the Way” unfold effortlessly, as if the songs are covers of classics, reminding us that McKee is still one of the best American songwriters around. “Turn Away” is a plaintive plea to a lover to stay, as heartfelt as Over the Rhine’s “Suitcase.” Her interpretation of Neil Young’s “Barstool Blues” fits in so perfectly that many are likely to assume she wrote it. “My One True Love” is one of those lovelorn ballads that could be hundreds of years old, the kind of thing that Linda Thompson could sing with a trace of menace, but in McKee’s voice, it’s whiskey sour. The most startling departure is an exquisitely soulful, fleeting joy called “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am” that plays the same part on this record that “Hush Now (Stella’s Tarantella” plays on Over the Rhine’s Drunkard’s Prayer. In fact, I’d love to hear Karin Bergquist take this sexy little number for a spin.

It’s an album full of the jagged shards of broken hearts, the tatters of lost innocence, the ache of nostalgia for a day before dreams were ruined. There’s not a lot of hope threading through these songs, and she admits, “… I just don’t know what I believe in now / What is love but ties, lies and broken vows.” In “Drowned and Died,” she laments the let-downs of human redeemers and lovers: “All of my days, I pray for a savior to find / Taking you down to swim in the river / Holding my hand, praying you won’t let me go.” The days when she could sing of gospel comfort, as she did on Lone Justice’s Shelter, would seem like the songs of a completely different person in a time long past, if it wasn’t for the fact that the voice is the same bold, brilliant beacon burning in the dark. Where she once was the lighthouse calling weary ships home to safety, now she’s a lantern on a wandering, battle-scarred ship, singing tales of loss and sadness. A more compelling work of longing you’re not likely to hear again anytime soon.

Lyrics like those in the title track also make it clear that the singer’s still wrestling with the elusive nature of fame, the distance she’s fallen from the popular glory of Lone Justice (hard to believe she was ever accessible enough to rock the stage on Saturday Night Live), and the frustration of the artist who feels betrayed by the industry. But she can hold her head high knowing that she has never betrayed herself in her recordings; she has followed where her vision led, even when her biggest fans (and I include myself in that lot) didn’t understand where she was going. In the long run, that will have proven the best decision as she remains a unique artist, that rare combination of vocal talent, integrity, and songwriting vision that burns too brightly to be tied down to a band.

Here’s the All-Music review by Thom Jurek.

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