Anne McCue's trying to shake her influences, but one keeps holding on.
I'm told there's a Koala Motel in Sydney, Australia. And I know there's another at the Fremont end of the Las Vegas Strip. Did one or the other inspire the Sydney-born, LA-based Anne McCue for this album? Or was it both? Either way, her fourth album is clearly her best so far.
It may be that adding keyboardist Carl Byron to the trio that recorded 2004's occasionally excellent Roll has somehow brought a new dimension to McCue's work, but it's more likely she's simply getting more accomplished at her craft. While Koala Motel still shows plenty of evidence of her influences, it also sees her beginning to step out of their shadow for the first time.
Opener "Driving Down Alvarado" emphasises Anne McCue's right to be taken seriously as a guitarist, singer and songwriter, while giving Byron's Hammond organ an immediate co-starring role. A somewhat swampy riff establishes a suitably driving rhythm. A melody picked out in steel recalls the soul of "Chain Of Fools". And then just as the vocals kick in, the guitar falls away to leave a keyboard-detailed atmospheric narrative that first hints at "Riders On The Storm" and then quotes directly from the source. Graced with backing vocals from Mr. John X. Doe, "Driving Down Alvarado" is a finely judged slice of cinematic paranoia at least halfway akin to an urban Lucinda Williams.
Sadly for McCue, Williams' shadow is quite the hardest for her to shake. As if it wasn't bad enough that America's Greatest Songwriter was kind enough to take McCue on a lengthy tour and proclaim her "my favorite new artist and an amazing guitarist," Williams' influence pervades much of Koala Motel in a way that's beginning to do McCue a disservice. Because if there's a weak link in the chain of tools that grounds the talented McCue, it's the rather uncomfortable fact that she simply isn't Lucinda Williams.
More fool McCue then, first for writing "Hellfire Raiser", a song that could've been an outtake from any one of three Williams' albums, and then for inviting her mentor to duet on it. Only the fact that Lucinda's performance is a little sub-par and that her voice is oil to McCue's water prevents a quite killing comparison.
While the rather lovely songs that bracket "Hellfire Raiser" are both at least halfway Lucinda themselves, there is at least enough clear differentiation to prevent the similarities from intruding. The first, "Bright Light of Day", is based around traditional English folk patterns distinctly different to the typical Williams weave, while the use of subdued Beatles themes and McCue's own guitar stylings contrive to make the second, "Sweet Burden Of Youth", her own.
Elsewhere, McCue's own strengths take centre-stage. The seven minute "Shivers" is a quietly epic masterpiece with harmonies from songwriter and solo artist Jim Lauderdale -- he co-wrote the Dixie Chicks' "Hole in My Head" with Buddy Miller, for example. "Coming to You" is another, more pure examination of the English folk tradition. "Lay Me Down" is an uptempo throwback to the polished country pop of '70s bands like Fleetwood Mac with slices of Supertramp or Be Bop Deluxe thrown in to leaven the mix. And then there's "Any Minute Now" and "From Bakersfield to Saigon".
Arriving hard on the tail of "Driving Down Alvarado", "From Bakersfield To Saigon" snatches the wheel, points the Chevy's nose out beyond the city limits, and heads off into the back-country without a second thought. With prominent mentions for Saigon and Beirut, you'd think this song was written as a criticism of American foreign policy through the ages, yet it seems more of an analysis of a long-lasting but ultimately unsatisfying relationship. Or something. After all, McCue has spent a year or so playing bars in Vietnam. But really, who cares about the lyrical confusion or about the occasional '70s glam-rock vocal mannerisms when the song boasts the sort of hook that could catch a Leviathan?
By contrast, "Any Minute Now" is lyrically specific and founded upon a staccato Motown riff littered with psychelic references. Think the Temptations fronted by a skinny white-girl rocker with a doomsday complex. Doomed. We're all doomed. "The world will end any minute now."
Koala Motel is far from flawless. Some of the songs are simply too long, suggesting that McCue doesn't quite know how to end an idea. The Southern blues rock workout of "As the Crow Flies", a cover from the '70s, is largely unnecessary. And there's nothing here with the raw emotional honesty of a song like Roll's "50 Dollar Whore". But the title track is undeniably the worst moment on Koala Motel.
As evry fule kno, the Second Rule of Rock dictates that all albums should close with an emphatic statement and a musical high. McCue, however, has chosen to defy the Rock Gods by closing her album with an utterly spurious instrumental. "Koala Motel" begins with a 60s Shadows twang, and then takes unappealing stylistic hops across the likes of Dave Gilmour's clinical precision and George Harrison's soulless solo work. It all just seems so purposeless. After four full albums, surely Anne McCue doesn't still feel the need to show off her mad guitar-slinging skillz? Obviously she still has a few lessons left to learn from Lucinda.