2006 / Music

Review: Neko Case Sticks With Familiar But Continues To Mesmerize

Alt-Country Diva Gets All-Star Help

In Chicago rock writer Greg Kot’s love letter-like book to his favorite hometown rock group, “Wilco: Learning How to Die,” he lets band brainiac Jeff Tweedy continually make the not-so-subtle point about why his musical path diverged from his old Uncle Tupelo partner Jay Farrar.

Photo: Anti-

Photo: Anti-

Tweedy says that he was forced to seek out other musical and stylistic solutions because he didn’t have what Farrar did: “the voice.”

What he’s talking about is that gruff, world-weary tone in Farrar’s singing that’s perfectly suited to giving voice to down-on-their luck farmers, jealous boyfriends or Civil War generals. And that’s an unchangeable facet to Farrar’s music.

The point? Gifts can often be a crutch for an artist.

Alt-country singer Neko Case is another prisoner of her own talents — albeit this is partially of her own design. She has glorious pipes and is addicted to bathing her vocals with echo so as to convey a sense of heart-ripping longing.

It continues to mesmerize — and creates a universal sound that blurs the lines between country, folk, rock and blues — but makes it hard if Case wanted to sing a little happy ditty. A cathedral organ isn’t appropriate on every song.

It’s this indelible musical identity that has made Case’s membership with Canadian supergroup, the New Pornographers, so appealing.

Her brief cameos on those albums have allowed her to play pop diva and demystify the Patsy Cline vocal effect that is such a part of her persona in her solo career. She lets her hair down, is just one of the guys in the band and lets loose with vocals heavy on sass and verve.

Despite this recurring dalliance, Case has stayed close to home on her latest, “Fox Confessor Brings The Flood.” It is her first studio recording in four years and follows up her critical if not commercial breakthrough, “Blacklisted.” (She did release a live album last year.)

Her portrait-tact to songwriting is growing stronger but overall, this new record simply hones several of the same musical approaches as the last one. It might be better than “Blacklisted,” but it’s an evolutionary step.

To further this end of upping the ante, Case again drafted southwestern Americana troupe Calexico to form the musical nucleus for “Fox Confessor Brings The Flood.” The pairing with Calexico is an easy marriage for both sides as this is a band that is intimately familiar with musical concepts like sustain and reverb.

Meanwhile, guests like the Sadies, Giant Sand’s Howie Gelb, singer Kelly Hogan and the Band’s keyboard savant Garth Hudson pinch hit here and there.

These helpers earn their star billing during the record’s earliest songs, which are the most arresting both because of the energy in their melodies and because they contrast with Case’s usual murder ballad fair.

On “Star Witness,” Case reveals a breathy, pristine falsetto to the wordplay-filled chorus that adds an interesting spark. Hudson makes a surprise appearance at the end of the song to give the tune an exquisite piano coda.

Hudson’s contributions throughout the record are a welcome color to a familiar landscape. On the ethereal folk of “Margaret Vs. Pauline,” the track is brought down to earth with Hudson’s glissando of piano tinkering. For “John Saw That Number,” he gives both boogie woogie piano and deranged keyboard lines that somehow fit in this song in which Case invokes imagery about John the Baptist.

The record’s best track is “Hold On, Hold On,” which is also its most urgent sounding. The Sadies supply some Byrds-style circular guitar plucking that builds and cools off when needed as Case warbles a cautionary tale about love.

The all-star contributions and new sounds found on these songs do a lot for this album, but another plus for this offering is its length. Despite its languid, good-things-come-to-those-that wait ambience, “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” is a fairly quick listen, coming in at a little over 35 minutes over 12 songs. Its emotional tone is heavy during each individual song, but song-to-song, it comes across as almost breezy.

Emotionality is Case’s calling card. Case’s emotive voice truly sets her apart as a singer and gives her the élan of star power. But, it will forever define her and her abilities. If she views her grand voice as a golden cage, she is still showing little inclination to abandon it.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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