Lately, alt-country upstart Tift Merritt has been making better Maria McKee albums than McKee herself has. Merritt excels at the sort of rollicking, classic, soul-influenced albums McKee made briefly in the '90s and should be making still. But McKee, who has country rock's best voice and its most unfairly lackluster career -- next to Kelly Willis, anyway -- never settled on a style that fit. Since her days fronting cowpunk pioneers Lone Justice in the early '80s, she's been a country folkie, an acolyte of Bowie in his Ziggy phase and a neo-baroque Edith Piaf, and that's just lately.
Her sixth and latest solo album, "Peddlin' Dreams," is a largely acoustic offering billed as a return to her Americana roots, which it is, if only technically. "Dreams" is a stripped-down folk disc with a wobbly, woebegone core. Stylistically, it plays to McKee's strengths -- it's uncluttered and naturalistic, almost free of the feedback and effects that have clogged her past few releases. The sweet, slight opener, "Season of the Fair," is a revival of the sort of easy, wistful ballad McKee has always done well, but it's downhill from there.
McKee has a voice made to confer misery, and confer it she does.
"Dreams" is an enervated "Bell Jar" of an album, depressing and uncharacteristically misanthropic. The title track goes nowhere, "People in the Way" goes pretty much the way you'd think, and for anyone who hadn't already figured out this isn't the feel-good album of the year, "Everyone's Got a Story" is virtually a makeshift suicide note ("I never felt so lonely / I never felt so doomed"). And that's one of the happier songs.
Even for McKee, whose voice was made to confer misery, it's a tough slog. "Dreams" tamps down her natural exuberance and doesn't offer much in return, except for an air of ennui that would impress a Frenchman.
It's not all bad news. The minimal accompaniment -- mostly piano, backup vocals and the occasional electric guitar -- serves her well, and "Peddlin' Dreams" at least feels the way it should: raw, and close-up. "(You Don't Know) How Glad I Am" is an AM pop gem, so different from the rest of the tracks here it might have wandered in from a Lesley Gore album. A cover of Neil Young's "Barstool Blues" is practically perfect, if only because the song was mostly perfect to begin with, and McKee and husband-producer Jim Akin are smart enough to serve it straight up.
It's a prime example of what the right material could do for McKee under the right circumstances. A covers album would do wonders -- so would a band, one with teeth. McKee also hasn't had a truly formidable collaborator since she teamed with Black Crowes producer George Drakoulias more than a decade ago. An iron-fisted producer, preferably female (take it from here, Sheryl Crow. Please.), could work miracles, provided she realized that underneath all that Plathian dolor is a fiery amalgam of Dusty Springfield, Emmylou Harris and Connie Francis, waiting to claw its way out.