Koala Motel, Anne McCue's second album for Messenger Records, following 2004's enthusiastically received Roll, represents an extraordinary leap made by an already impressive talent. The new album is at once timely and timeless, accessible and deep. It goes beyond affecting songs and inspired playing and singing, and creates a world of its own.
Once again co-produced by Dusty Wakeman (Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam) and McCue at Mad Dog Studios in Burbank, Koala Motel finds the Australian-born writer/singer/guitarist surrounded by the nimble rhythm section of bassist Wakeman and drummer Dave Raven, with skilled keyboard player Carl Byron completing the lineup. This is distinctly a group effort by these four simpatico musicians, further enhanced by strategic vocal contributions from Lucinda, John Doe, Jim Lauderdale and Heart's Nancy Wilson (who also plays mandolin on one track). McCue has a degree in film production and film studies, and she expresses great admiration for the movies of Robert Altman and Sergio Leone; Koala Motel is an intricate ensemble piece of another kind, the opening track being in the film noir style and the final (title) track moving more toward the style of a Spaghetti Western theme.
"The four of us have been working as a unit for the last two years," McCue points out, "and we've become really close, musically and personally. We recorded this album as a band. Dusty and Dave are both from Texas, and I've come to realize that Texans and Australians are very similar. Being part of such a great band is like a dream."
Whereas Roll primarily presented McCue's songs in the context of a modern-day power trio, Koala Motel expands the soundscape, as her electric and acoustic guitars share the foreground with Byron's piano (at times he actually seems to be channeling the late, great Nicky Hopkins), Hammond B-3, and accordion. While her guitar work on the new album doesn't dominate, it deftly enhances the meaning and feeling of each song, like the Beatlesque slide part that appears briefly but crucially to underscore the bittersweet flavor of "Sweet Burden of Youth." "I like guitar players like George Harrison and Dave Gilmour, who play very tastefully," she confirms, "as well as Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan."
On one level, Koala Motel is a celebration of the music the Sydney- born McCue grew up with as the beneficiary of the collective tastes of her seven older siblings. "The early '70s is my favorite era," she says, "and I wanted the album to have a bit of that feel." By now, McCue has thoroughly assimilated these vintage sounds into her own style, here employing them as subtle and complementary reference points. From song to song there are echoes of L.A. Woman, her favorite Doors album ("Driving Down Alvarado," with Doe riding shotgun), Tupelo Honey-era Van Morrison ("Hellfire Raiser," to which Lucinda brings an inspired degree of nuance), Fleetwood Mac ("Lay Me Down") and the classic Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris duets ("Shivers," with Lauderdale providing the chorus harmonies). The lone non-original among these dozen songs is Tony Joe White's 1972 swamp rocker "As the Crow Flies," which showcases the band's rarefied command of the deep gut groove.
On another level, the album is a trenchant commentary on things breaking down in the modern world — institutions, cultures, moral values and relationships. The tone is established on the edgy opening tandem of "Driving Down Alvarado" and "From Bakersfield to Saigon." The first, explains McCue, is "about the seedy side of life, and 'Bakersfield' is about the dangerous climate of meanness and greed that exists in the world. Every culture is exhibiting it — it seems to be a universal movement — and I find that really frightening. In the 60s there were leaders who had a dream of a better future. No one is presenting that to us at the moment, but I am hopeful things will improve."
"Any Minute Now" is an apocalyptic rocker that brings the "paranoia and anxiety" (as she puts it) of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" and the Stones' "Gimme Shelter" into the present tense. The band's appropriation of a galloping Motown groove serves to intensify the sense of urgency found in McCue's lyric while also counteracting its thematic toxicity.
McCue balances these disturbing themes with what could alternately be seen as their antidote or as shelter from the storm ‹ romantic love. One of several intriguing songs that looks at intimate relationships is "Coming to You," a lovely ballad rooted, fittingly, in pastoral British traditional music, a la Fairport Convention. The lyric, she says, "is based on a letter that appears in D.H. Lawrence's groundbreaking 1920s novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover. The roles of men and women were changing then and that's true today as well. Nothing is clear-cut anymore, and what makes the book so great is that it's about being with another person no matter what the cost. Love is the answer, like John Lennon said."
On this bold and timely work, McCue doesn't hesitate to confront the heaviest issues head-on, and the personal catharsis she achieves by doing so is commensurate with the effect of this provocative music on the listener. With the appearance of Koala Motel, there's no longer any question that we're witnessing the maturation of an important new artist, in real time. Anne McCue's voice is one we need to hear.
"Anne McCue is the virtual definition of triple threat. A potent singer, thoughtful songwriter and tough guitarist, she completely comes into her own on Koala Motel."
"Koala Motel sounds like a classic on first listening... replete with everything that makes great rock great"
"Australian singer/songwriter/guitarist Anne McCue wields potent bluesy rock against her unaffected, naturally wistful voice."
"By the time the title track closes the album, you are ready to follow this peripatetic world traveler wherever she wants to go."
"A killer guitar player..."
"McCue sounds like her alto came out of God's workshop. She's confident, polished, smart, and Koala Motel is wholly original - and indelible."
"With such skill and self-confidence, McCue should have no trouble mastering the headlining slots that are surely in her future."
"Australian 'it girl' Anne McCue kept me going with an electrifying set of tunes from her new Koala Motel."
"My new favorite artist and an amazing guitarist."