Recording of February 2006: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Anti 86777 (CD). 2006. Neko Case, Darryl Neudorf, prods.; Craig Schumacher, Chris Schultz, engs. AAD. TT: 34:55
When we left Neko Case, in 2004, the alt-country/alt-something singer had just released The Tigers Have Spoken. Loaded up with covers, albeit cool ones such as Loretta Lynn's "Rated X," this live album lacked something. It was hard to connect to, and didn't dig as deep as or possess the sparks of promise that made her 1997 debut, The Virginian, and its 2000 follow-up, Furnace Room Lullaby, such honest, heartfelt, virtuoso vocal tours de force.
Even before Tigers hit the stores, there was much buzz among Case fans and foes alike of a new studio album. As anyone knows who's ever heard Tigers or seen Case's live show, there is at least one, and probably a handful, of killer records lurking somewhere in this woman's psyche. The trick remains getting them out, written down, and onto a hard drive.
On her last studio album, 2002's Blacklisted, Case's songwriting clearly revealed that she was searching for a new vehicle for her voice. Blacklisted also showed that, lyrically, Case was beginning to tap into unknown worlds of her own emotions and of harrowing storytelling.
On Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, her fourth full-length release, Case has concocted a striking collection of original music that, if not a fully formed opus, has inched closer to one than any of her earlier discs.
Born in Virginia and raised in Tacoma, Washington, Case went to art school in Canada. She maintained her connections to the music scene in Vancouver, performing both as one half of the Corn Sisters (with Carolyn Mark) and as a sometime part of the New Pornographers. The Canadian connection brings up an association that Case has often heard in the past and that now, with Fox Confessor, she'll be hearing even more. Rather than the usual verse-chorus-verse structure, the musical settings Case has written for her voice here are reminiscent of those created a decade ago by Ben Mink and k.d. lang for that Canadian singer's equally impressive instrument. More tone poems than songs, Case's compositions exist in some netherworld of alt rock, cracked gospel, and torch songs. In recent interviews she's made noises about giving up on "typical song structure" altogether, but what's happening here is a singer becoming her own best songwriting partner.
Melodically, the star track is "John Saw That Number," with a soaring a cappella introduction by Case and fellow alt-country/torch songstress Kelly Hogan, recorded in correct indie fashion in the back stairwell of Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern. Guess inspiration struck, and the ol' laptop happened to be nearby. From there, with the help of bassist Joey Burns, drummer John Convertino of Calexico, and the Band's Garth Hudson on keyboards, the tune settles into a mid-tempo, gospel-flavored rave-up complete with Case banging on a tambourine. This arrangement, like those on the rest of the album, is detailed and busy, though not in an annoying way.
While "John Saw That Number" and the rest of the album's melodies are pleasant while not being particularly hooky—like the songs on k.d. lang's Ingénue, these exist, much to their credit, in their own musical universe—it may be in its lyrics that Fox Confessor breaks the most new ground. As is Case's custom, they're twisted in almost scary ways. In the opener, "Margaret vs Pauline" she sings in a conspiratorial tone, "Margaret is the fragments of a name / Her love pours like a fountain / Her love steams like rage / Her jaw aches from wanting and she's sick of chlorine." In a paean to madness, "Dirty Knife"—based, Case says, on a house near where she grew up in Washington State, in which an entire family simultaneously went mad—she sings, "He sang nursery rhymes to paralyze / The wolves that eddy out of the corner of his eyes." If you listen closely, the lyrics of Fox Confessor have the power to send chills running through you.
At the center of it all is Case's glorious alto voice, a very large instrument—and, now, a trained one—crammed into her slight, red-headed frame. Her singing has never been more expressive or affecting—a perfect match of material and voice, songwriter and singer.
Voted the "Sexiest Babe of Indie Rock" by Playboy magazine several years back, Neko Case has seemed on the edge of some variety of greatness for some time now. While Fox Confessor Brings the Flood may not quite be her masterwork—for that to happen, the tunes will have to be more winning—the many intriguing talents of this singular artist are now firmly in orbit around great things to come. Make no mistake, though—in this album, Case explores new artistic lands and seems committed to the journey.—Robert Baird