We’d like to kick off your weekend with some Frank on Friday, as we welcome back Ted to debut what he’s deemed The NOT Column…as in, “NOT a reissue, but NOTeworthy nonetheless!” Today, he looks at the latest release from Australian alt-country singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Anne McCue, who has tapped into a rich vein of blues, jazz and folk to craft Blue Sky Thinkin’. We have no doubt that the music being created by McCue will one day be reissued and covered by future catalogue music-centric sites! – JM
“These really are my blue sky days!” sings Anne McCue on the concluding song from her latest release, Blue Sky Thinkin’ (Flying Machine Records, 2015). In order to come to this conclusion, the singer-songwriter-guitarist takes the album’s listener on a winding journey of musical stylings and sonic textures. She faces the trappings of heartbreak head on and achieves a sense of redemption by the end of BST, McCue’s sixth studio album.
In the midst of a break-up album like BST, there is still a playfulness, since there are songs about “Little White Cats,” flowers, and bees, and, all the while, numerous musical genres are employed: jazz (swing), folk, blues, and country – thus, making the ‘sky’ the limit…literally! This is an explorative album that not only showcases multiple genres, but lives in them and incorporates them for thematic effect. For instance, “Dig Two Graves” may read as a murder ballad (maybe not to the extreme of a Nick Cave murder ballad!), but jazzy elements soften its edge. Although a contemplative and, at times, heart-wrenching album by nature and content, Blue Sky Thinkin’ certainly has moments that can make its listener want to seek out the nearest pair of Aris Allens.
On the surface, BST sounds like a modern-day Squirrel Nut Zippers album; McCue even puts “a lid on it” in “Spring Cleaning in the Wintertime.” After repeated listening, though, McCue uses swing elements (last prominent in pop music circa the late ‘90s) and an elegiac New Orleans sensibility to create a cyclonic atmosphere, a controlled chaos of swirling guitar work and tempered horns resulting in an inferno of sound. Moreover, this is an album that does smolder in its nearly whispered vocals and minor chord burnings all to capture the mixed emotions of a break-up. What makes listening to BST a unique experience is that it is a predominantly mid-tempo, rhythmic album that chugs along and handles what could be a dirge with the carefree wit of a Bob Dylan who once sneered to a former lover, “You just kinda wasted my precious time.”
On Blue Sky Thinkin’, McCue superbly features musicians Dave Raven, Carl Byron, Dusty Wakeman, and Jim Hoke, and she is joined on one track (“Devil in the Middle”) by The Blasters’ Dave Alvin on vocals. As a vocalist, McCue is somewhere between the sultry sound of a Norah Jones and the gritty lilt of a Lucinda Williams with a touch of Chrissie Hynde “brass” thrown in for good measure. The sound of the album ventures from a swinging opener (“Dig Two Graves”) to shadings redolent of Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain” (from his infamous breakup album, Blood on the Tracks) on what could easily be one of this album’s potential singles, “Spring Cleaning in Winter.” (“Cowgirl Blues” would be a good choice for single release, too, though the honor has already gone to the sublime and heartbreaking “Things You Left Out in the Rain” which has even yielded a music video!) The album’s centerpiece, “Save a Life,” is a perfect jam song for concert, with a cool, yearning soundscape reminiscent of the Peggy Lee classic “Fever.” Lyrically, this is an album in which McCue goes from having her dreams “tattered and torn” (“Knock on Wood”) to being found by “Lady Love” (“Blue Sky Thinkin’”) and along the way there just may be a grave or two to watch out for.
By the time BST reaches the track, Cowgirl Blues, the bottom has dropped out and the production intentionally goes not necessarily as lo-fi as a Jessica Pratt album, but certainly to a raw, honest state that harkens back to Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator). Blue Sky Thinkin’ marks the evolution of a clever songwriter and consummate musician, not to mention a favorite guitarist of Lucinda Williams. Knock on wood, but Anne McCue’s time has arrived on what is her most realized album to date. Recommended.