Pop: Heaven is when life is sweet

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TWO SONGS into "A Close Encounter with Maria McKee" and the erstwhile Lone Justice singer is crying "Suicide!" She could be singing about the effect her last album seems to have had on her career.

McKee once won over the masses with the horribly lightweight "Show Me Heaven" but her towering 1996 album Life is Sweet ditched MTV-friendly fluff for a sound pitched somewhere between John Cale, David Bowie, Patti Smith and, at a pinch, Suede. Mixing avant -garde song structures and baroque orchestrations with red raw vocals, raging guitar abuse, intricately confessional lyrics and a soaring pop streak, it was a brave and brilliant way of reinventing herself.

Of course, almost no one bought it and McKee consequently lost her recording deal with Geffen. Which is why she is playing this touching-base gig, showcasing new material and stripping the epics from Life is Sweet down for a three-piece line-up. At first, the tension of playing it so bare shows. McKee snaps at a heckler (they asked for it) who moans about her sitting down, and on the usually plaintive "Life is Sweet" attacks her guitar like it has just said something obscene about her mother. One song in, and she already sounds like her own orchestra.

That it soon makes sense is because these songs thrive on melodrama. "I'm chuckling now," McKee grins, "but guess what's coming next." A breathtakingly overwrought "I'm Not Listening" follows, sounding more like a deranged tribute to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? than ever.

Even the magnificently murky and swaggering "This Perfect Dress" works, shorn of its crescendo of quivering guitars and aching strings, probably because Life is Sweet's extravagant arrangements grow organically from the songs anyway.

Regardless of the minimal delivery, the new material sounds more ambitious and uncompromising still. If having no record deal has given Maria McKee the opportunity to do what she wants then, in the short term at least, it's a fine thing.

"Be My Joy" transcends its gauche title with some ragged lurches in tempo and a spare litany of the insecurities that plague relationships, while another one builds like "Life is Sweet" spliced with Suede's "New Generation", and features some beautifully earthy lyrics about "our heads down the toilet".

It is bizarre to think that this woman's record sales probably suffered from comparisons with Alanis Morissette two years back, when women with cranked-up guitars were erroneously lumped together for one glossy magazine cover story after another. In reality, the comparison stretches little further than them both being women who sing.

"I'm so full of grand ideas," McKee sings on a new song. Try saying that about Ms Morissette. Now all she needs is a label brave enough to sign her, so that we can hear them properly.