Neko Case

Photo:Jason Creps

Success has as many definitions as there are people who strive for it. In the case of Neko Case, her idea of success, at least so far when it comes to albums, is great, resonant lo–key collections of what you’d have to call modern folk or countrified indie rock tunes that showcase her bigger than you’d expect alto voice which is always recorded with some amount of echo added and often in tandem with her harmony partner, Kelly Hogan. That’s the same Hogan who’s out on tour right now with Case and Jakob Dylan in support of his record Women + Country.

Case, who’s one of the female voices in the New Pornographers (see Aural Robert in the May issue of Stereophile), has made a series of killer records that confuse or put some people off because they do not seek super accessibility, and tend to be mysteriously titled and very determinedly eclectic. She has great talent, and if you watch her live or listen to her records, you get the feeling she has bigger, even more classic records in her, but they just haven’t quite come out yet. The fact that she’s signed to Anti Records, one of the most prescient labels out there, confirms that she has both proof and potential.

Just to make sure I wasn’t being too hard on her with that last comment, looking for shit that doesn’t exist just because I’m a rag–ass critic, I went back and listened to the last three, The Tigers Have Spoken, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, and Middle Cyclone and yes, the woman has that distinctive, deeper than you think, resonant voice. It may be that I just feel like she’s never had the kind of killer set of tunes on an album that her voice deserves. This sounds weird, but she’s someone who should be bigger, more well known, than she is.

That said, the live The Tigers Have Spoken which has smokin’, rocked up covers of Loretta Lynn’s “Rated X” and Boston rock scene luminary Steve Cataldo’s “Loretta,” has an immense amount of energy, some of it thanks to her usual backing band, The Sadies as well as singers Hogan and Carolyn Mark and pedal steel pro Jon Rauhouse. Made in Tucson, Arizona, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2005), has a certain religiosity to it, a secular gospel kind of feel, in tunes like the opener “Margaret Vs. Pauline” or “John Saw the Number” where Case really lets her ringing voice soar to the rafters. Again the band really kills on that record as well, with Tucson musicians like Calexico and Howe Gelb (Giant Sand) joining Dexter Romweber and Garth Hudson. Which brings us to her latest, Middle Cyclone which was released in 2008 and contains one of the most iconic album cover art images ever that features Case crouching on the hood of a 70’s Mercury Cougar brandishing a sword. Again recorded in Tucson, with essentially the same band with some key additions like M. Ward, Steve Berlin, and Lucy Wainwright Roche, this one finds Case in full voice as always but seemingly more at ease, closer to have a definable style that is uniquely her. Again, it’s quirky indie folk rock buoyed by her songwriting which has never been stronger than in tunes like “The Next Time You Say Forever,” and the really fun, slightly jangly, “People Got a Lotta of Nerve.” Always a greater chooser and interpreter of covers, Case here brings her voice, a new flavor, to a heartfelt version of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me.” Not to slag her earlier, twangier records which also have their charms but the woman is clearly making better records each time out. It will interesting to see what she records once she’s off her tour with Jakob Dylan.

Rankstranger's picture

Middle Cyclone is an incredible album. I love her earlier twangy stuff, especially Furnace Room Lullaby but I *respect* Middle Cyclone as an artwork *and* love it as an album. You get the feeling that it was what she was aiming for with Fox Confessor but just missed. I'm with you in looking forward to her future output but I think Middle Cyclone is a classic that I will always come back to.

Jrmandude's picture

She does have chops and writing ability. But always feels like the song ends too soon, and in concert they all start to sound the same. It's a little like she keeps purging the same demons(understandable from what I've read). Maybe I want her to stretch out, as its called. Certainly with these wonderful musicians I'd like to hear them let loose.

Steve Dollar's picture

She and Kelly are by far the best thing happening on that Dylan record. Man is that dude boring.

Not Impressed's picture

The world is full of people that should be promoted more and that deserve a better record deal.Try listening to KGRL online for nothing but women artists and you'll be surprised how many great women are being ignored. The moral of the story is, go out and play what you want and enjoy playing no matter what size the audience.

Alan in Victoria's picture

She needs a really good producer. The Pornographers do, too. Not for a more commercial or polished sound; just,like rankstranger so aptly put it in the first comment, to help her aim better.

rblnr's picture

Been a fan for several years. Absolutely underrated/underappreciated. BUT, her songs after awhile don't show much range stylistically, and she's, hate to say but it's true, a total dud live. Saw her in NYC last year -- plays songs exactly as one the album which really highlighted the sameness of her songs, and she didn't even intro her band.We came into the theater as big fans and left as something else. It was strange, her disconnection and seeming discomfort w/the audience, and it was clearly a crowd of fans. Natural shyness wsa probably a part of it, but there was something else going on. That the songs are presented the same live as recorded doesn't help either.And yeah, there are many others in the big talent/underappreciated category -- Chuck Prophet is the first that leaps to mind.

Michael Agee's picture

There are brilliant stretches on Furnace Room Lullaby, Canadian Amp (my second favorite of her albums, an obscure gem I picked up used), Blacklisted, and Middle Cyclone, but for me Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is a masterpiece front to back, no apologies, no reservations. Yes, she should be "bigger" than she is, but don't you think brilliance sometimes flourishes when a vestige of obscurity remains? People make music for different reasons. My favorite albums are frequently those that predate broad success. When an artist evolves as positively as Ms. Case, I hold my breath and hope that whatever mix of circumstance, inspiration, and talent that gave rise to her existing work is allowed to continue.

Fred Jones's picture

OK, her songs aren't terribly deep, but she is a hottie

Mcondo's picture

I have not had much luck with her Fox and Middle Cyclone cd's. Something in the production makes her voice very irritable on my system. Not so on her duet with Peter Wolf on Midnoght Souvenirs - a great record BTW.