CD Review of Koala Motel by Anne McCue

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Koala Motel
starstarstarhalf starno star Label: Messenger
Released: 2006
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How to describe Koala Motel in one sentence? Simple. If Lucinda Williams is too alt-country for you, but Sheryl Crow isn’t alt-country enough, then Ann McCue has the album for you – but if you want more detail, then read on.

Hailing from not far outside of Sydney, Australia, Anne McCue first tasted success as a member of Eden AKA, who released a self-titled album on Columbia Records in the late 1990s that led to appearances on the Lilith Fair tour in ’98 and ’99. Her solo career kicked off in ’99 as well, with the release of her first full-length release, Amazing Ordinary Things, and it’s led her on a rather successful path, at least from a critical standpoint. Koala Motel is McCue’s fourth album (including 2002’s live document, Ballad of an Outlaw Woman), and it wouldn’t be any surprise if it turned out to be her breakthrough; it’s full of radio-friendly fodder that could fit in just as well on country stations as the adult alternative slots on the dial.

Having a load of guest stars on your album is a slippery slope to traverse when you’re an established name; critics love to grouse about how unnecessary – and, in some cases, inaudible – such appearances are, and how they rarely serve to add anything to the quality of the songs, instead only serving to provide another name for the promotional campaign. (“Featuring guest appearances by…”) McCue, however, is on pretty safe ground. For one thing, a man-on-the-street poll would likely find that 10 out of 10 Americans would offer blank stares in response to the mention of her name (and, in truth, the reaction probably wouldn’t be substantially different in Australia), so she’s definitely not what you’d call “established.” And for another, all of the guest spots on McCue’s album add something to their respective songs.

Take John Doe, for instance, who contributes backing vocals to the chorus of opening track, “Driving Down Alvarado”; he’s clearly audible, but given the years he’s spent shadowing Exene Cervenka, he certainly knows how to make an impression without stepping on McCue’s vocals. Lucinda Williams, meanwhile, is a longtime fan of McCue’s, and the reverse is unquestionably true as well, so it’s not hard for the two of them to gel on “Hellfire Raiser.” And Nancy Wilson from Heart? Well, Hell, all she really had to do when she entered the studio to record “Sweet Burden of Youth” was pretend that Anne McCue is Ann Wilson, and she was home free. (Nancy also contributes mandolin to “Bright Light of Day.”)

To hark back to the Sheryl Crow reference in the opening paragraph, the similarity between Lance Armstrong’s ex and McCue is most prominent on “From Bakersfield to Saigon.” And speaking of Crows, here’s an awful segue: McCue really shows her guitar expertise on a cover of Tony Joe White’s “As the Crow Flies.” (Seriously, though, McCue absolutely shreds on the song.) Though Koala Motel is filled with lovelorn lyrics, the album’s title cut / closer is actually an instrumental, one which McCue’s fretwork nonetheless manages to imbue with sadness.

If you’re always tempted to experiment with this so-called “alt-country” stuff but have been afraid that it might be too traditional for you, Koala Motel walks a comfortable line between classic and modern that makes it perfect for your inaugural purchase.

~Will Harris