Album Review: Anne McCue – Broken Promise Land

God bless America, where every man is free. Right now, this very second, a mother somewhere is assuring her daughter that if she eats her vegetables and hangs up her clothes (in the closet, please), she might one day be elected President of the United States. Or perhaps Chief Executive sounds like too much work? Maybe, as the Byrds once suggested, when your hair’s combed right and your pants fit tight, you might want to be a rock ‘n’ roll star?

Anne McCue is one of those. You can tell it right off. She’s the kid in the back of the class gazing dreamily out the window at something just beyond the horizon, whose ears snap to attention when the radio clicks on. She’s the girl who spends countless hours alone in her room, head pressed up against the speakers, intent on capturing that glorious split-second when Keith Richards leans lazily into that eternal riff from “Tumbling Dice,” or when the Mar-Keys slide luxuriously behind Otis Redding as he pleads for all to “Try a Little Tenderness.”

McCue has been chasing that essence since she was a wee lass in Sydney, Australia. Her father, mother, and seven older siblings were all enthusiastic aficionados of music of every stripe, from Billie Holiday to Led Zeppelin. After earning a Film Studies degree from Sydney’s University of Technology, McCue hit the road, first with the all-female indie rockers Girl Monstar, then as one-third of the folk trio Eden AKA.

It turns out, however, that America was calling all along. Enticed by the rumbling blues of Howlin’ Wolf, the wide-open psychedelic horizons of Jimi Hendrix, and the choogling swagger of Stevie Ray Vaughan, this Aussie chick relocated first to Los Angeles, then to Nashville, and in the process was re-born a Texas troubadour.

She’s not the first woman to travel this road, of course. Bonnie Raitt, Lou Ann Barton, and McCue’s virtual mentor Lucinda Williams, each found religion in the mythical greasy spoons and honky tonks along America’s hillbilly highway. Indeed, McCue’s music, at its grungiest, reeks of stale beer and dust-caked leather jackets worn smooth with age, of engines burning oil, carburetors choked with red clay.

Her previous albums (2004’s Roll, 2006’s Koala Motel and 2009’s East of Electric) not only earned McCue the accolades of her peers, but also garnered her the Roots Music Association’s 2008 Folk Artist of the Year award, an invitation to perform at the 2007 International Guitar Festival’s Jimi Hendrix tribute, as well as inclusion in Time-Life’s Four Decades of Folk Rock box set alongside such stalwarts in the rock pantheon as Bob Dylan and Wilco.

Broken Promise Land opens with “Don’t Go to Texas (Without Me),” a somewhat conflicted statement of purpose grounded by McCue’s fat, meaty guitar riff (which makes unmistakably clear her serious Stones jones). McCue’s guitar playing, while still working its way towards a unique voice, embraces hard-edged and propulsive (“Ol’ Black Sky” and the title track, where she unleashes her inner Hendrix) as well as dreamy and mysterious (her cover of fellow Nashville transplant Amelia White’s “Motorcycle Dream,” on which McCue channels the languorous, fog-shrouded vibrato of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”).

Blessedly, McCue is ably supported throughout by the rock-solid rhythm section of bassist Bones Hillman (Midnight Oil) and drummer Ken Coomer (Wilco), a duo whose steady, supple beats provide her the space both to focus and to wander.

In fact, McCue’s sidetrips away from the main road are the most intriguing. “God’s Home Number”—an odd epistemological ditty that’s more Twin Peaks than Dukes of Hazzard—nods toward a destination way off the beaten path, where snake handlers compete with Friday night juke joints, and features an unexpected echo of Exile on Main Street’s weirdly Pentecostal “Just Wanna See His Face.”

McCue hasn’t yet stumbled upon the perfect mix of these two strands (two consecutive “lonely” songs, “Lonesome Child” and “The Lonely One,” are one too many), but her sight’s set in the right direction.

It’s on Broken Promise Land’s final track, a cover of the ’70s Aussie metal band Rose Tattoo’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Outlaw,” that McCue finds a way to gather the loose ends together. “All I need,” she sings as if she were the first to realize it, “is a rock and roll band, so I get to play.” Her voice is at once confident and low-key, unhurried and assured. Not all promises, apparently, are broken.

McCue may not know exactly where she’s going, but she’ll know it when she gets there. She’s a woman to keep an eye on.

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