Review Summary: Keep the faith 'til the battle's won
Hailing from Los Angeles with one badass wanna be country girl from Beverly Hills, Lone Justice was the "next big thing" that never happened in the 80's. It may have been the unbridled passion of singer Maria McKee which did the band in as her energy and sometimes over the top live performances left some unconvinced, or record company pressure to sell millions after this debut album simply went gold. But it wasn't long before the band went bust with creative differences, personnel changes, and worst of all crassly commercial songwriting and production values which sank the second album Shelter before it even took to the water. But for one brief moment in time the band was a real band, and it had the goods. This debut album which shares the bands name and is one of the best debut efforts of the 80's or any other decade proves that well enough.
Coming in rocking hard right from the start, East Of Eden explodes forward like a country song gone all wrong with electric guitars, a stomping rhythm, and big, bold drums pounding out a steady beat behind the big, twangy voice of singer Maria McKee. And it's obvious from the start McKee is a singer of special and unique talent. And while that uniqueness may have been problematic at times on a concert stage, on record her vocal talent shone as bright as any.
Showing the young singer's songwriting talent on the very next tune, After The Flood belies her young age. Just 18 years old when this album was recorded this song is very knowing about home, loss, and life beyond your control, or anyone else's and all it's consequences. Derivative as it may be, this simple rock 'n roll tune about perseverance in the face of disaster shows a maturity and character beyond the age of it's writer. And McKee performs the song as if she understands every word she is singing as if from experience. It's no wonder she was for a moment "the next big thing." Hearing this song and realizing the singer / songwriter is just 18 years old does in fact make one sit up and take notice in a big way. Sure, rock 'n roll has always been a young person's medium. So this sort of talent may not shock. But the potential, like many of the greats that came before her, is clearly evident. McKee had it all, it seemed. If only she was given the time and space to further develop it all.
However the first sign on record that some of the powers that be in the music industry had other ideas came with the very next track and the Tom Petty penned single Ways To Be Wicked. A good song by any standard it is a "ringer" nonetheless and expectations for this fairly typical, mid tempo Tom Petty / Mike Campbell composition was that it would propel the band instantly into the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and set the band up for stardom. It's a good song, and has the familiar organ sounds of Heartbreaker Benmont Tench leading the song throughout with production handled by Tom Petty producer Jimmy Iovine himself, who handled production duties for the entire album. But the song peaked at number 71 on the charts and never went any higher. So much for high expectations and how hard they can fall in the music business, and how a successful album in a creative and artistic sense in that business can become nothing more but a quick failure in the eyes of the suits in its boardrooms.
But record company expectations do not make or break a recording, and this album goes on to be a remarkable debut by the band, indeed. Produced by the aforementioned Jimmy Iovine it has a rich, clean sound and the band is soulful, spirited, and on the mark track after track. The lovely country ballad Don't Toss Us Away penned by McKee's half brother Bryan MacLean is a heartbreaking break-up song showcasing the singers heartfelt bluesy, country wail as she pleas with her lover "darlin' please / don't toss us away" as a simple electric guitar accompanies her until the song get's the full band treatment a minute or so in. And it's as beautiful and as authentic a country ballad as you'd find on any Patsy Cline or Dolly Parton album. And this album in fact reached number 62 on the Country charts, nearly equaling it's peak of number 56 on the Billboard pop charts.
Band founding member and bassist Marvin Etzioni must also be mentioned for the album's success. Writing or co-writing six of the albums ten songs it's his mark that provides the consistency which flows from the record from the first track to the closing hymn of faith You Are The Light, both of which are solely his own and the latter of which is delivered with heartfelt grace by McKee as if written by her. "You are the light in my dark world / You are the fire that will always burn / You know how to help me / When I can't make it on my own" McKee declares on the album closer, and it's as gorgeous and heartfelt a country spiritual record as you're likely to find recorded from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash. Elsewhere on the album you'll find Etzioni's affinity with melody and spiritually tinged lyrics on the rockabilly influenced rave-up Soap, Soup and Salvation about L.A.'s skidrow Missions and the good work they do if only you can sit still for a sermon first, and the earnest roots rock of Pass It On. Pass It On, a song about faith in the face of worldly desires might be the best pure song on the album with it's pitch perfect melody and well penned lyrics. "Land to land / Father to son / Soil to sand / Pass it on" McKee sings in a good, strong voice as the band rocks steady behind her. And it's as catchy and listenable as anything else on the album. In fact if this song or another had been chosen as the groups first single the fate of the band may have been much different as this and other band written tunes show the character and and unity of the group in style and substance. But the first two singles which were expected to propel the band to rock 'n roll stardom were written for the band, not by the band. And as good as Ways To Be Wicked is, and as soulful and sexy as the tuneful second single Sweet, Sweet Baby is, these are not Lone Justice songs.
Which may have been another problem not foreseen at the time. Originally a "cow punk" cover band playing just for fun around the clubs of Los Angeles with a dreamy teenager for a singer, as the band evolved and Etzioni entered the picture Lone Justice became a country / country rock band that was sometimes more country, sometimes more rock, and oft times a hard to define mixture of both. Confusing potential fans and radio programmers further by releasing what were essentially two pop songs as the bands introduction singles could not have helped matters once the entire album was heard. What was this country stuff? Why is this beautiful but eccentric teen singer yodeling, and why does she dance around stage as if having a seizure? A little bit country and a little bit rock 'n roll may have worked for Donnie and Marie Osmond on their television variety show, but it did not sell records for Lone Justice.
And so the beginning of things was in fact the end of things for a band that could have at least given us some good music if not great sales for some years to come. The talent was there, the band was there, the singer had raw but unrefined talent and charisma to spare. So, what was the rush? Well, Maria McKee was IT. She had IT, and the powers that be wanted it. Everybody said she was a star, everybody said she was the next big thing, forget the band, and she had songwriters the likes of Tom Petty and Bob Dylan penning songs for her, and bands such as U2 wanting her to open for them. I mean, Dolly Parton came to see her at a small club one night. Dolly Parton, the Queen Of Country music. Certainly she could be made a STAR.
But she could not be made a star. McKee to this day is a unique and strong talent, but she needs help. And after this one album that help came from the likes of studio musicians and hired songwriters and a band with the marketing name of Lone Justice, but was not. Only Maria remained, propped up by greedy record executives and "star maker" handlers. If only the original group had been given the time to find themselves we may have been gifted with the full potential of this band for some time to come. Instead what we got was yet another cautionary tale of what happens when you give control of your artistic freedom and vision to those who don't know any better, or simply allow them to take control of you in spite of your better instincts. Lone Justice will forever represent one of the strongest arguments in rock 'n roll history of why artist and bands should never, ever let that happen. And we can only wonder what could have been.