Neko Case Albums
Some people truly seem to have come from heaven to gift us with their voices, and Neko Case is one such person. She deserves every bit of acclaim and attention she gets. Each time Neko Case sings, she brings a different kind of quality to the song. She is one of the few singers in existence that can simply entertain by voice alone. I am not talking old fashioned crooners like Frank Sinatra or even Patsy Cline, I am saying she seems to create songs and make them different by merely opening her mouth. Even more underappreciated than her voice is her songwriting; her songwriting has evolved beyond her humble beginnings into a genre all their own, a fusion of folk, rock, and country music that sounds pleasant to the ears but is actually revolutionary in practice. Far from being just another singer/songwriter, Case is a pioneer.
Patsy Cline, Wanda Jackson, Joni Mitchell, Nico, Harry Nillson, Mary Margaret O’Hara, The Everly Brothers, Loretta Lynn
1997 – (2.5 / 5) – The Virginian
2000 – (4 / 5) – Furnace Rom Lullaby
2002 – (4.5 / 5) – Blacklisted
2006 – (5 / 5) – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
2009 – (5 / 5)+ – Middle Cyclone
2013 – (5 / 5) – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight
2016 – (4.5 / 5) – Case / Lang / Veirs
2018 – (4.5 / 5) – Hell On
The Virginian – (2.5 / 5)
The debut by Neko Case (and her Boyfriends……) is typical country rock in a time when country rock from the northwest USA was a pretty niche thing to do. Neko is a talented vocalist for sure but doing more originals and not straining her voice so much will help her in the future. The first two songs on the album are the most heartfelt and also the best, “Timber” brings a new kind of verve to country-rock music and the cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Bowling Green” as an amazing tribute to an underrated city. The exaggerated vocals on most songs do not help at all though, as the Case strains to create vocal effects to make a song interesting (“Hiccups”) or a title track that while quite good, tries hard not to sound alike another hit song (“The Virginian” is a dead ringer for Bonnie Tyler’s “It’s a Heartache” (1979)). There is potential here, but Neko Case needs to differentiate herself from the crowd or else she will fail to make a true impact.
Greatest Songs – Timber, Bowling Green, The Virginian
Furnace Room Lullaby – (4 / 5)
Case’s second album is an improvement in every way over her debut. No longer does Case strain to sing notes for ‘effect’, she is often subtle and charming at the same time, while showing herself to be one of the better country influenced singers of the era. Often her voice steals the show or makes the song more interesting, like on the haunting “Furnace Room Lullaby” (with one of the greatest vocal takes I have ever heard!) and “Porchlight”, the later with its swooning chorus. “Guided by Wire” gives her sound a new flavor similar to Whiskeytown’s alt-country and dual male/female vocals that really shine. “Twist the Knife” features a killer guitar solo from producer Darryl Neudorf and overall sound quality that moves away form country music and more towards rock n roll.
Case makes the old era of country sound new again, with tunes such as “No Need to Cry” and “Bought and Sold” that compare favorably to Patsy Cline. Not every song works, as a lot of the trad-country on the debut leaks over on tunes like “Mood to Burn Bridges” and “We’ve Never Met”, but even on these the songwriting is strong and the vocal performance more tempered. “Whip the Blanket” is the only song that is a little too much of a throwback. The album rebounds with “South Tacoma Way” a ballad with killer harmonies and meaningful lyrics that mark Case as a truly great singer songwriter. If Case embraces the wildness of her songwriting talent and keeps using her voice in interesting ways (she also sings in the New Pornographers’ Mass Romantic album around this same time era) she will become a great album crafter.
Greatest Songs – Furnace Room Lullaby, Porchlight, Twist the Knife, Set Out Running
Blacklisted – (4.5 / 5)
Her last album is where she found her voice but here Case harness all of her songwriting ability to create her first masterpiece. “Deep Red Bells” is the obvious stand out, still retaining a country music soul but constructed in such a way it defies easy genre clarification. “Tightly” moves along a similar vibe, backed by guest voice (a genius recluse) Mary Margaret O’Hara and containing Case’s best melodic line yet. The diminished chords of “Stinging Velvet” put most country artists to shame, while “Pretty Girls” shows off her lyrics in a powerful, feminist melodic showcase, singing “pretty girl / you’re too good for this / don’t let ‘em tell you you’re nothing”. Brief interludes such as “With Bees” and “I Missed the point” are a new addition to Case’s songwriting, thriving in a short length but unpredictable song style that serves as sort of breaks between the songs themselves.
Still quite rooted in tradition at parts, utilizing the backing band Calexico on many tracks adds a southwestern and demented flavor on tracks that otherwise would not quite be highlights- “Look for Me” and the slightly overdone cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Running Out Fools”- but its hard to critique Case on anything on this record since it all is produced masterfully, and her voice sounds more in control than ever. Neko Case could sing all of these songs a capella and the effect would be largely the same. Perhaps some songs blend together at times, but it’s easy to get lost in the records dark, ghostly atmosphere. “I Wish I was the Moon” and evocative closer “Ghost Wiring” are even further additions to the other great tunes that have come before, as Case shows off how easy it is for her and her collaborators to craft this awesome country music. A bright future lies ahead for this fascinating artist.
Greatest Songs – Tightly, Deep Red Bells, Pretty Girls, Ghost Wiring
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood – (5 / 5)
On the fourth album, Neko Case once again outdoes herself. Her stint with The New Pornographers has perhaps influenced her pop songwriting even further, and while there is still amazing country-folk to be found on the twisted opener “Margaret vs Pauline” and traditional folk tale “John Saw That number”, were Case mainly excels is this new melodic style. “Star Witness” is her best tune yet, a song that should be more well-known than it is (background vocals by Kelly Hogan). The chorus is breathtaking, “Hey when she sings, when she sings like she runs / move like she runs”. The breakout hit-that-never-was called “Hold On, Hold On” is another genius moment, written like only Case could write it, twisting and turning all over the places while she rambles about loving the devil. “Lions Jaws” is another beautiful Patsy Cline type number sung like a lost sea shanty, while “Dirty Knife” plays like the darkest song Gordon Lightfoot never wrote complete with Randy Newman orchestral touches; this latter song has no chorus to it, it just changes patterns four or five times and drifts along.
Small touches make these songs great, like when you notice how many octave ranges Case actually has on a song like “That Teenage Feeling” and when the guitar gets slightly ahead of itself during the bridge and then just suddenly STOPS! The slightly avant-garde timbres of title track “Fox Confessor” are impossible to absorb on first listen, but once you do it is unforgettable. Perhaps the shorts tunes “A Widows Toast” and “At Last” could have been left off in favor of the longer more powerful ones, but again like on Blacklisted these songs provide a brief respite from onslaughts like the hammering folk tune “Maybe Sparrows”. By the time the finale “The Needle has Landed” finishes its climactic ride, all you want to do it start the record over again. Case has created a near perfect record here that combines the trappings of country and folk music into the purposive energy of the new indie rock flavor of the 2000’s. It is a joy to behold.
Greatest Songs – Star Witness, Hold On Hold On, Dirty Knife, That Teenage Feelings
Middle Cyclone – (5 / 5)+
Somehow, Neko Case seems to be getting better and better, and just when she has reached formal perfection she expands everything she was doing before crafts an even longer, better record. Middle Cyclone has everything the records before had but even more with more instruments more ideas than ever. Opener “This Tornado Loves You” is a fantasia of a song that constantly interrupts itself with new ideas, a song that seems to be stream of consciousness in nature but is actually the cut/paste style of a truly great songstress. “People Got a Lot of Nerve” is even better, her ultimate masterpiece and a song that deifies any notions of what traditional songwriting is; it is perhaps the greatest country song ever written. Her heroine cry of “I’m a man man man eater / but you seem surprised prized when I eat ya” is one for the history books. “Polar Nettles” is not a song so much as it is poetry put to random styles of music. “Middle Cyclone”, Magpie in the Morning” and “Vengeance is Sleeping” are acoustic singer/songwriter tunes, performed blindfolded and full of emotion and surprising moments; these ‘moments’ are the highlights of Case’s work and it is nearly impossible to remember where they all happen. Neko Case paints the yellow-brick road and all just try to follow behind.
Further into the record is the deep yearning of “I Am An Animal”, a treasure of a rock n roll song that sounds immediately timeless. Right after comes “Prison Girls”, a nearly over five-minute train ride through the mind of a brutal inmate, perhaps enslaved in a prison of her own making. “Fever” starts in one direction, and completely trips over itself to become yet another unforgettable country/folk tune. Covers of Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” and Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” seem plain in comparison, and like usual provide the record with moments of normalcy. “The Pharaohs” works perfectly showing off Case’s haunting vocals and harmonies with Kelly Hogan while tying the album once again in country roots. Her back band on this record is her best one yet, giving Case with a sound that is truly her own: Paul Rigby and M. Ward on guitar, Tom V. Ray on upright bass, Jon Rauhouse on pedal steel, Barry Mirochnick on drums, Howe Gelb (of Giant Sand) on piano, and of course Hogan on background vocals.
The final moment of the record is “Red Tide”, harking back to the psych-rock of the1960’s and pointing to a completely open future of experimentation. This is Case’s best pure rock song, and a perfect way to end the record. The notion of what a song actually ‘is’ is brought to the forefront in the best way possible on this album, full of surprises that take plenty of listening to unravel. Middle Cyclone takes a while to process because it comes from a mad genius for sure, Case proves herself to be a deconstructer of the ‘pop-song’ format much like Syd Barret, Neil Young, and Pete Townsend before her, while also mastering the art of abstract folk and country leanings like Joni Mitchell, Mary Margaret O’Hara, and Rickie Lee Jones. Case has fooled the world, using her soulful voice to ease the listener into her web then striking like a spider, opening our minds to infinite songwriting possibilities.
Greatest Songs – People Got A Lot of Nerve, Prison Girls, Fever, Red Tide, This Tornado Loves You
Sidenote: yes, the album ends with “Marais la nuit”, a 30 minute track of literal crickets chirping. Case wanted the album to have an outside natural feel, and so she recorded this at her own farmland. This is probably meant as a ‘piss-off’ to negative critics of her work showing she really doesn’t care what anyone thinks. It’s just a moody ending to the record….not worth over analyzing as any kind of major statement. IF you’re wondering if I have listened to the entire track before to see if anything eventful happens….well keep wondering.
The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight – (5 / 5)
Making us wait four years between albums is rough, but Case is back and as strong as ever on her latest album. For one, she can still write songs in multiple genres and excel in any of them whether it is country (the polished geometric wonderings of “Night Still Comes”), power pop (the blistering rocker “Man”), experimental rock (“Where Did I leave that Fire” blends a kind of free form noise to an old time ballad), or a capella vocals (a cover Nico’s “Afraid”). For two, her voice can put most others of the 2010’s to shame. She has a voice that would make singing the phone book a joy, as they say. “Local Girls” is another on of her great songs, where Kelly Hogan and her compete for anguished wails and like the best songs of the past the ending could go on forever and eve r and never get old.
One more underrated thing about Case is she has a killer sense of humor and often ‘speaks’ in a way that is unique to her. Would a song like “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” even work otherwise? Her lyrics quote everything from centipedes to “being the man in the fucking moon”. And then there are songs like album opener “Wild Creatures”, “Bracing for Sunday”, and “City Swan” that combine all of these genres and quirks into a sound that is simply perfect. Great songs other artists would yearn for are almost afterthoughts- the winding ramble of “I’m from Nowhere”, the brief but memorable “Calling Cards”, the fanfare of horns on album closer “Ragtime”. Neko Case has been a trailblazer in The New Pornographers as well, but with her solo albums she outclasses even them. This is her third absolute masterwork in a row, albums with no bad songs at all, superbly and mathematically sound. She is the best example I can think of a person that is on another plane of existence then the rest of us: a transcendent artist.
Greatest Songs – Local Girl, City Swan, Wild Creatures, Man, Night Still Comes
Case/Lang/Veirs – (4.5 / 5)
As different as these three women artists are, they work together to create a unified whole like few before them. The main comparison is Crosby/Stills/Nash and Young, and the tri-vocal harmonies of “I Want to Be There” and “Atomic Number” displays this passionately. Laura Veirs dominates the record with 6 songs, while Case and K.D. Lang each have 4, but it is often blended into a unique whole, whereas 14 songs by only one of the artists may get old but together they are unstoppable. While I personally missed getting a complete Neko Case album this year (as she is my favorite female singer EVER), if these songs are any indication of how strong it would be, I am excited for the future. From the mysterious “Greens of June” (my favorite song of the year) and “Supermoon” to the torch ballad “Honey and Smoke” to upbeat/downbeat travelogues like “Best Kept Secret” and “Down I-5”, the variety is key to making the album work as a whole. The production takes from late 60’s Nick Drake and Townes Van Zant arrangements with strings that echo the best of Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks.
Greatest Songs – Greens of June, Delirium, Atomic Number, Honey and Smoke
Hell On – (4.5 / 5)
I am glad to say I am never disappointed in a Neko album. At best it’s a masterpiece, at worst it’s a fun challenge. This album serves as a break of sorts for sure, a sort of laid-back quieter affair attuned to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. On first listen I disliked this album, on subsequent listens I loved it; so in other words a typical Neko Case release. She never adheres to a formula, and she always fills songs with surprise twists (the multiple vocal effects of “Gumball Blue”) or sustains suspense with guest’s vocals. Her longest song ever on an album is the almost eight minute duet with Mark Lanegan “Curse of the I-5 Corridor”, a nod to her obsession driving down I-5 she first started on the album with K.D. Lang and Laura Veirs. The Eric Bachmann (Archers of Loaf frontman) collaboration “Sleep all Summer” is less successful, but it is still a haunting classic country ballad. In that same vain we have “Bad Luck”, an easy lead single form the record and one of her most fun tracks ever. “My Uncle’s Navy” is the hardest rocking track, and it is as menacing as it is haunting.
The best thing about Neko is as always her insanely structured songs. I literally don’t know how you write an a song like “Dirty Diamond”, it is so full of twists and turns but it SOUNDS very flowing and easy; it literally takes a surgeon’s focus to deconstruct its multiple flowing facets. “Oracle of the Maritimes” would be a metal song if the guitar had more distortion or if there were any percussion at all- just imagine a metal vocalist singing it. Oh and then it breaks into a prog-rock keyboard led instrumental bridge, wtf?? The mutated closing country rock of “Pitch or Honey” (Lyric sample: “moonlight reflected is many times stronger”), perhaps the first half is pitch and the last half is honey? Perhaps I’m not as smart as her so I don’t understand. But I have heard enough music to know a truly dense masterwork when I hear it.
Greatest tracks: Curse of the I-5 Corridor, MY Uncle’s Navy, Pitch or Honey, Dirty Diamond