This is Lone Justice: The Vaught Tapes, 1983 (review)

Lone Justice – This is Lone Justice: The Vaught Tapes, 1983 (Omnivore Recordings) review

Archival release captures the raw energy of this under-appreciated band

I vividly remember purchasing the debut Lone Justice album from the Record Bar at Northgate Mall in Durham, NC in 1985.  It was the first time I bought any music without ever hearing a single note. We were blessed with fantastic college radio stations in the Raleigh/Durham area, but for some reason, they had ignored this record.  But, after reading several rave reviews of the band, I decided to take the plunge anyway.  From the very first banshee-like wail of Maria McKee on the opener “East of Eden,” I was hooked.  Yet, listening back to that record now, although still great, the production is way too slick, and the drums are too big sounding.

Enter This is Lone Justice, a collection of demos that band recorded two years before their major-label record.  Don’t let the word “demo” scare you off.  These sessions were helmed by studio ace David Vaught – so they sound fantastic.  And, there’s nothing “demo” about the performances either, no mistakes or flubs, no missing guitar solos.  All the songs work really well as a cohesive album.  In fact, the title of this disc is perfect.  For anyone that was lucky enough to see the original band live (as I did in Chapel Hill in ’85) THIS is Lone Justice, in all their unbridled glory.

These early tracks reveal the band’s pure intentions – to meet country and punk halfway: country beat played with punk’s reckless abandon.  Take the opener, the George Jones’ nugget “Nothing Can Stop My Loving You” – it’s played at a break-neck two-beat pace, with guitarist Ryan Hedgecock turning in his best Scotty Moore impersonation, while McKee gleefully lets her powerful vocals fly.  The two duet for a fine reading of the  Johnny/June Cash classic “Jackson.”  In fact, Hedgecock is a surprisingly great singer – his deep, resonating tone is a good foil for McKee’s.  It’s a shame this aspect wasn’t explored more.

Out of the twelve tracks, only “Soap, Soup and Salvation” is repeated on their debut.  In comparing both versions, this early take sounds more natural; heartfelt.  By the 1985 rendition, McKee was sounding a little too cartoonish with her voice, making the recording sound like a novelty record, instead of the country hoedown it was intended to be.

“Vigilante” shows off some fine fretwork from Hedgecock, while “Working Man’s Blues” is a blistering take on a Merle Haggard number.  “Cactus Rose” shows that the band was capable of writing a memorable hook, and features some great harmonies as well.

Although these songs are great, there’s no way a major record company back in 1983 would’ve touched them while in the throes of New Wave and MTV.  Geffen tried, unsuccessfully, to temper the band’s fury.  They brought in Jimmy Iovine, who helmed several hit albums for Stevie Nicks.  The band even covered Tom Petty’s “Ways to Be Wicked.”  But, in hindsight, the compromise failed.  For their followup, the band tried adding synthesizers into the mix.  But alas, Lone Justice was not meant for stardom.  The members all scattered into various projects, with McKee leading an eclectic, yet satisfying solo career.  But, for one brief moment, Lone Justice burned brightly.  Here it is on This is Lone Justice, in all it’s untamed glory.  —Tony Peters