Neko Case's 'Flood' of Velvet Melancholy
Wednesday, March 8, 2006
Neko Case is best known as (a) the angelic-voiced backup singer for the New Pornographers, (b) an alt-country chanteuse, (c) an auburn-haired indie-rock pinup girl and (d) the second coming of Connie Smith. Yes, Ms. Case is -- or has been -- all of the above, but on "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood," her sweeping new album, those familiar touchstones seem to have disappeared. In its bewitching mix of reimagined folk tales and melancholy remembrances, Case blurs boundaries, sidestepping boxes labeled simply indie or country, gospel or soul. That elusiveness -- and a clutch of her most striking songs -- makes the record her most fully realized: a rich collage that doesn't feel rooted in any era and, gradually, like a bird building a cozy nest, makes a welcome home in the listener's subconscious.
In a short film made to promote the disc, Case claims the songs are united by the theme of "losing your faith, in every possible way, which seems to me the most American feeling there is these days." The 12 songs are, indeed, downcast, but never dire, infused instead with a dreamy dislocation. It is folklore that fires that far-off feeling -- from the Russian and Ukrainian legends that inform the crestfallen title track to the disc's shivery centerpiece, "Dirty Knife," picked up from a story told by Case's grandmother, wherein all the occupants of a house go insane simultaneously.
A host of Neko's longtime cohorts -- and a new one, the Band's keyboardist Garth Hudson -- conjure the background settings, but the hallucinatory rhythm-section tumbleweeds of Giant Sand/Calexico scamps Joey Burns and John Convertino dominate the record's instrumental tones. (And if these thrilling songs have an antecedent, it's likely Howe Gelb's cosmic Americana.)
But, as on every one of her solo discs, from the bourbon-laced country of 1997's "The Virginian" to 2004's tumbling live set "The Tigers Have Spoken," Neko's black velvet voice is the central gravitational force; the music would sound as dry as dust without its world-weary charm, its smoky, lurking sensuality. So through "A Widow's Toast," a stark minute-and-a-half proclamation, "John Saw That Number," a tingling update of an obscure gospel nugget, a disarmingly simple backyard bird paean ("Maybe Sparrow") and "That Teenage Feeling," which evokes the Everly Brothers in its weirdly spiraling pop surges, Case has never sung with more intense emotional conveyance.
For that alone, "Fox" should be considered a treasure, but it's really a triumph of song craft, a refinement of her vision that is, at its center, utterly post-punk: tossing out the stricture of verse-chorus-bridge and pasting together the best bits in a skewed, emotional and fresh-slant process. The results are consistently bewitching, tracks that dismiss, as "Lion's Jaws" puts it, "momentum for the sake of momentum."
"Fox Confessor" does bring a flood, a cascading breakthrough for a major artist who seems driven by a burning desire to chew on your heart until it comprehends beautiful despondency just the way hers does.