On a Roll
Anne McCue responds to Delta blues like Liz Phair responded to the Rolling Stones or like Jane Jensen to comic books: as a touchstone in her life, as a set of given standards that springboard an independent modern woman launching into reflections, rants, and stories drawn from her individual views. Also, like Phair and Jensen, McCue has her fair share (or more) of insecurities and things for bad boys she knows she shouldn’t fall for. Of course, since they’re independent modern women, Phair, Jensen, and McCue all do more than pine. They chase as much as they’re chased, they stand back and take alternately grim and guardedly optimistic looks at the states of their romances, and, besides, they have other things on their minds besides just some man.
McCue’s vision of this, befitting her Delta leaning, is bleaker than Phair’s or even Jensen’s. While Phair aims to shock with her explicitly honest descriptions of the commonplace and Jensen thrives within the garish comic book sexuality and anger that she adopts for her own, Delta blues is a haven for McCue, a foreign land of long-suffering detachment whose examples make the pains of love and death in her own world bearable.
McCue is a formidable guitarist, one on the too-short list of female blues-rock virtuosos. If, on a song or two here or there, she tries too hard as a songwriter to make gut-wrenching statements worthy of her spiritual Delta roots, she aims her guitar at Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” on the hidden track and does just fine (It was done in one take, too).
And as proof that she has as much intelligence as skill at guitar, she’d earlier started “Hangman” eerily, fittingly mute. About a woman who’s lover has been hanged and, standing in the moonlight, calls for the hangman to appear, the song starts soft, then gradually builds until the song descends into a swirling haze of slide guitar, like ghosts materializing from the fog and coming down from the gallows.
Admittedly, though, the song itself is aided by the preceding song, a wistful number about a wild “Crazy Beautiful Child” lover who’s left home in search of bigger things. This then segues into “Hangman”, providing the latter song with the sort of context that, by itself, the song does not provide. For all its power, the song is, divorced from context, a sparse image and little more, without the hard interpretation of the image of, say, an Imagist poem.
The failing of her images isn’t that they’re not good images and, indeed, McCue is admirably concrete in her use of images, without trying to read too much into them; if anything, it’s the opposite. From dead lovers to twinkling Christmas trees, the images are fitting, but she does little to explain their occasional spiritual ambiguity and, worse, does not offer enough clues to make their mystery more enticing.
But, taken together with “Crazy Beautiful Child”, a song like “Hangman” takes on character even as it more than saves the earlier song from any charge of being too dreamy.
Not that McCue doesn’t occasionally slip into the sort of hefty statement of grandiose meaning that actually says very little. On “Gandhi”, she sings that “I wanted to be like Buddha / But ended up like Nixon / Betrayed the trust of the common man”. Intended to be taken as a pure statement of something like guilt or regret, the lines are also stripped of any specificity or context and, though she may intend them to be universal, they can just as easily be read as generic. As similes and aspirations go, aiming for Jesus or Buddha and ending up with Hitler is the sort of grandiose statement that, far from doing Skip James proud, sounds like an angsty high schooler.
What makes “Gandhi” disappointingly notable is that, given its placement on the climactic arc of the album, on a sequence of searing blues-rock tracks late in the album, McCue seems to intend the song as Statement rather than tossed-off filler (Albums this good have earned a little filler). Still, only “Roll”, sequenced to buffer “Gandhi”, falls into similarly melodramatic spiritual turmoil and, even on the autobiographical “Milkman’s Daughter”, she sets a mood and doesn’t swamp the listener with pithy insights into her own character (unlike far, far too many other singer-songwriters).
McCue is a good and balanced enough musician for her guitar playing to take up the slack from her writing even as her writing focuses her playing. Even if she never reconciles her abilities as a songwriter with the desire to make the sort of great, defining statement she hopes “Gandhi” will be, McCue is already a fine musician on the strength of her current abilities alone, abilities that, as a songwriter, make her a better purveyor of pained contemplation than outright catharsis or moments that, by their very power, are defining.
But didn’t Lucinda Williams (who calls McCue her “new favorite artist”) herself start off as being a better singer than writer?
Should that pattern (after substituting singing with playing) of growth hold true for McCue, then—wow. Get this album now, so that, if that happens, you can rub it in how you were the first on your block to own an Anne McCue album.
Or, if you’re not into snob cred, you can just get this album because it’s a damn good album.