NEKO CASE Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (Anti)
Neko Cases fourth solo album (shes also recorded with The Sadies, who appear here, and The New Pornographers) offers a kind of immaculately polished alt.country, like early Vic Chesnutt given a romantic blush and a burnished sheen, sprinkled with a pinch of the mysterious fairy dust Dave Fridmann saves for his Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips engagements.
Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is as compelling as it is mysterious. Despite its approachable surfaces, it rarely lets the listener in on what its thinking. A rare exception is opener Margaret Vs. Pauline, a tale of a socioeconomically mismatched childhood friendship (One left her sweater sittin on a train/The other lost three fingers at the cannery). With its opiated Byrds jangle, Hold On, Hold On typifies the albums dreamy unreality; That Teenage Feeling builds from circuitous verses to a mighty, valedictory crescendo of a chorus. A curious bathroom acoustic wraps itself around the acapella introduction to John Saw That Number, a traditional piece that crystallises the albums haunted gospel, and the girl group swoon of Lions Jaws hides a vicious bite (no, really). The sets high watermark is closer The Needle Has Landed: I have no idea what its about it seems to juxtapose ruined romance with some kind of non-specific military emergency but the way it builds and maintains its otherworldly atmosphere from a succession of mundane images is astonishing.
Garth Hudson guests here (alongside Howie Gelb and Calexico), which gets me to thinking that maybe Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is channelling the same kind of rural Americana divined by The Band on Music From Big Pink, ornate and atmospheric yet loose and laid-back. Yet the album also suggests at times a kind of gothic baroque English folk with a country twang, and if that sounds like some kind of catastrophic genre pile-up its not meant to, just an acknowledgement of how difficult this fine album is to pigeonhole.
NEKO CASE Live From Austin TX (New West)
Recorded for the PBS programme Austin City Limits, this performance predates the release of last years mesmerising Fox Confessor Brings The Flood by almost three years. Consequently, it can perhaps be excused for lacking that albums velvet upholstered shimmer. Here the substance resides in the fabric of the songs themselves, presented without frills by a small ensemble. Theres no fasttrack into these songs of ghostly corners and burned out buildings, but they repay careful, repeated consideration.
The only precursor of Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, and perhaps not coincidentally one of the sets most memorable moments, is Maybe Sparrow; theres a scope and a swing to it that eludes the earlier songs. She claims Wayfaring Stranger as her own (literally, if you believe the credits), but its the cover versions that provide the albums highlights. Sok-Yin Lees Knock Loud is a gorgeous, insistent vignette of coincidence and barely controlled longing, Lisa Marrs In California dissects Los Angeles from the perspective of a homesick Canuck, and Bob Dylans Buckets Of Rain becomes a cheery bluegrass hoedown. Look For Me (Ill Be Around), previously recorded by both Sarah Vaughan and Ketty Lester, is a gloriously dark wallflower chic torch ballad, and Hank Williams Alone And Forsaken borders on gothic.
Live From Austin TX takes effort to appreciate fully, but given time and patience these small, mysterious sketches will pull you in.
NEKO CASE / BLACK GOLD Harris Library, Preston 9 September 2009
Woah! Flame-haired American alt.country chanteuse Neko Case, performing live, in my local library? Ye Gods, how has that happened? I would’ve happily plunked down the price of admission to see her take a few books out and use the internet for a bit; the prospect of an actual gig amidst the non-fiction stacks is almost too much to contemplate.
But first, here are Brooklyn quartet Black Gold, who suggest a kind of folksier TV On The Radio, but happily without the sense of shoulder-shrugging disappointment that band usually engenders in me. Their winding epics often mutate into things of surprising power. We like them, and they seem to like us, and it’s a warmer, fuzzier experience than support bands generally give and receive.
Neko (pronounced Nico, I learn tonight, and not Neck-o, as I’ve been misspeaking it for years) leads her quintet through a setlist that leans heavily on fine new album “Middle Cyclone”. Her tantalisingly impenetrable vignettes lose nothing in live performance, but frustratingly we get no closer to cracking each intricately formed enigma, despite helpful introductions from Neko or her left-hand lady Kelly Hogan (who, on tambourine, is somewhat Nico-esque instrumentally herself), for example “This song’s about my first boyfriend, who was entirely imaginary”, or “This is a song about a man in love with a phantom nurse. Yeah, that one.”, or “This is the title song of our new album, “Ace Of Spades””.
There’s a surprisingly high bluegrass quotient to the instrumentation, although given the beardy predilection of some of her band maybe it should be expected. I could’ve heard more from the most magnificent “Fox Confessor Brings The Flood” album, pining in vain for “The Needle Has Landed”, but she does play “Maybe Sparrow”, “That Teenage Feeling” and “Margaret Vs. Pauline” impeccably.
Unlikely as it seems, the Harris Library makes a surprisingly adequate concert venue. Neko likens working under the somewhat harsh, invariant lighting to nocturnal archaeology, and, although the band have beer, there’s not so much as a coffee for the rest of us. However, the acoustics are great, not entirely expected in a building where noise of any kind is traditionally frowned upon. All in all, a cherishable experience.
NEKO CASE Middle Cyclone (Anti-)
If possible, Neko Case fifth solo album is even more ornate and lustrous than her last, “Fox Confessor Brings The Flood”. However, it’s also yet more enigmatic, making it a more even but more frustrating work. You have to surrender to its impermeability and just get wrapped up in its cosseting layers. It’s brilliant, but by God is it inscrutable.
If you could judge an album by the company it keeps, then “Middle Cyclone” positions itself at all points along the Americana timeline. The returning presence of Garth Hudson on keyboards strengthens suggestions that it’s a modern day indie equivalent of “Music From Big Pink”; contributions by Howe Gelb of Giant Sand and M Ward bring it through the ages right up to date.
“People Got A Lotta Nerve” is a perfectly constructed pop miniature that suggests the chamber pop of Cardinal; sublime yet mystifying, like much of the album, the title track charms with its musical box melodies. There are measured, subtle Sparks and Nilsson covers too. In fact, the constant stream of ideas and innovation only dries up on the closing “Marais La Nuit”, a field recording made beside Case’s pond. This kind of audio nature ramble isn’t even original – Lullaby For The Working Class closed their fabulous 1996 debut album “Blanket Warm” in a similar fashion – but at least the edit on the vinyl edition is only 15 minutes long: the version on the CD runs for over half an hour.
Happily, the 180 gram vinyl pressing sounds exquisite, and it’s heartening to hear indie labels such as Anti- achieve near-MoFi or Classic levels of sonic wonderment. Good on ‘em.