March 16, 2006

Neko Case's Breakthrough

Print More

Neko Case is perhaps best known for her work with The New Pornographers, the Canadian-based supergroup I spoke so fondly of last week. But Case has a southern American heritage that stretches far back. Born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia (her first solo album is titled The Virginian), Case has an innate sensibility for both soulful country and Americana, and though her sturdy pipes translate well to the immediate gratification inherent in The New Pornographers’ sugary pop, the expressiveness and softness does not.

With Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Case’s latest album, you can finally sense her moving away from a more traditional country sound and towards more adventurous, personal songwriting. Although Case has four consistent, strong solo albums under her belt, the albums were built on a foundation of traditional and country covers. Fox Confessor, comprised almost entirely of original tracks, is alternately fiery and intimate.

The first thing that pops is Case’s commanding voice, but the album is anchored by a highly skilled arsenal of backing musicians. From the dusty mariachi landscapes of Calexico and Giant Sand to the Canadian surf-country of The Sadies, Case enlists her friends in high places to construct atmosphere in a variety of homes, including the desert spaciousness of Arizona (the album was recorded in Tucson and then mixed in Toronto), the lush woodlands of Canada, and the gospel south of Virginia.

And though Case may have the alternative-country stigma of contemporary fellow musicians Laura Cantrell or Edith Frost, the campiness and retro inclinations of the genre are refreshingly absent. Case presents music that is intensely, unapologetically here-and-now, and her affinity for bleak narratives more closely resemble Nina Nastasia (the presence of a haunting cello in the ethereal, mysterious “Dirty Knife” pays respect to the spectral wanderings of Nastasia).

Case summons a wide variety of genres, including country-western, indie rock, Americana, and sweet gospel, but there is no doubt that every song belongs to her and her alone. Almost entirely sung a capella, “A Widow’s Toast” has a strong spiritual feel, yet the presence of echoing, minimal acoustic guitars create a wholly different ambiance. Similarly, the sweet innocence of a ’50s sock hop is beautifully enacted in the slow-dance melody of “That Teenage Feeling.” The hook-laden “The Needle Has Landed,” with its chugging, hypnotic rhythm and spine-tingling harmonies, is a surprising but not unwelcome closer.

As the album’s luminous standout, “Star Witness” is alone worth the price of the album. A searing ballad about a fatal car crash and her lover’s death explores the painful loneliness experienced in the wake of tragedy (the frequently brutal imagery is deeply evocative: “There’s glass in my thermos / And blood on my jeans”). Case’s singing reaches dizzying heights, yet her voice finds comfort in a wide variety of ranges. At over five minutes, “Star Witness” is by far the longest and most fully realized track on Fox Confessor.

Fox Confessor is loosely connected by stories of animals, and Case is sensitive to a world in which many animals must suffer silently. Like her earlier album The Tigers Have Spoken, Case, through her oscillating moments of tenderness and bombast, gives these animals a precious voice (in the plaintive, sparse melody of “At Last,” Case sings “But I’m just an animal and cannot explain a life”). On “Maybe Sparrow,” Case becomes an omniscient narrator and mournfully sings about the clash between technology and nature: “The engine hums a sparrow’s phrase / For those who cannot hear the words.” Instead of being didactic or preachy, Case swings gracefully between serious environmental issues and personal crises.

The only glaring fault with Fox Confessor is the running length. At just over thirty minutes, it’s far too brief. Once you surrender yourself to Case’s powerful voice and goosebump-induced storytelling, the album is over before you realize it.

The beauty of Fox Confessor lies in the deeply satisfying relationship between the highly polished, straightforward appeal of Case’s voice and her cryptic narratives. Finally moving away from faithful country retellings, Case draws from a much more personal well, such as her Ukrainian heritage and cross-country travels (“Dirty Knife” ends with a music box-esque Ukrainian melody). A strange, indefinable sadness permeates the album, but by harnessing her own demons, Case emerges more defiant than ever. Not to be missed, Fox Confessor is a rich, extremely satisfying album from a woman you knew always had it in her. Emerging from the collective aesthetic of the New Pornographers, Case has definitively proven herself to be an accomplished musician, singer, and songwriter. There’s a sense of urgency to Fox Confessor, and even though the lilting, waltz-like rhythm of “Star Witness” belies that urgency, when Case belts out “Hey when she sings, when she sings like she runs,” you can feel her running through your bones, and it is impossible to shake loose.

Archived article by Natasha Pickowicz