Saturday, April 1, 2006

Records In Review: Neko Case--Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

Right off the top, a confession: I have time for Neko Case's voice. An awful lot of time. In fact, if I was given to such things, one of my top musico-erotic fantasies would probably involve NC, Maggie Reilly, and a large consignment of Vista Bellas. But that's another subject for another blog.

Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, which I originally misread as ...Brings The Food (leading to some odd misinterpretations of the lyrics) is the alt-countryish Ms. Case's fourth studio album and it's been getting glowing reviews 'round these parts and has also been moving the odd unit, which is good news. For those unfamiliar with the husky-voiced artist, she's an honorary Canadian (a stint in Vancouver) and perhaps best known as a member of The New Pornographers, of whom I'm greatly enamoured, where she shares the vocal duties with Canuck Guy and Hippie Guy. But there be no power-pop here, fellow! Case's own music utilizes traditional country and folk motifs but comes across as decidedly non-traditional. There's a very dramatic, and often melodramatic side to her songwriting, but it's not Kate Bush dramatic--more of a sense of resignation--and the dynamics are often static and the atmosphere trapped in amber. Add some sonic thickness and you've got a music that's simultaneously pretty and creepy. The songs are generally short and often evanescent, and it's easy to imagine many of them being sung as asides by characters in a musical drama. I'm not exactly a font of knowledge on this genre, so I'm going to write in more general terms than usual, which is probably a better way of dealing with this record anyway.

This is a very good record, but I do have a few problems with it. If I liked everything on Fox Confessor as much as I like my four or five favorite songs, we'd be into rave territory, but life is seldom fair, even for the mere end-user of compact discs. The reliance on dramatics is something I'm not entirely comfortable with. My friend G-Love (Sans Special Sauce), who's more familiar with Case's ouevre than I, finds this aspect of her music (i.e., the end-product of a defined lyrical dramatic persona) slightly hokey. I'm not sure I'd put it in those terms, but I would say that there are times on the record when dramatic considerations and musicality are inversely proportional. I'm thinking here of songs like "Dirty Knife," which has very good bones but is prevented by its episodic nature from really getting going. The music feels almost incidental to the evoked mood. The lyrics are a bit much at times, too, especially when Case is in full wry drama queen mode: "The most tender place in my heart is for strangers/I know it's not kind, but my own blood is much too dangerous." Call me judgmental, but I just don't think you should be writing stuff like that when you're in your mid-30s.

At her best, Case combines a strong melody with an exceptional vocal cadence. Two of the three tracks on the album co-written with The Sadies, "The Needle Has Landed" and "Hold On, Hold On" (from whence the cited offending lyric came) are standouts in this regard. They're both upbeat, straight-ahead and slightly twangy, with bouncy and sharp vocal rhythms that have a way of sticking with you for days. "That Teenage Feeling" is a bit kitschy for me, but again the vocal writing and performance is excellent. Other standouts are the cautionary but fatalistic (and creepy) "Maybe Sparrow," which features some nice details of arrangement, the brief bit of atmosphere "A Widow's Toast," and particularly "Star Witness," which is a great example of the aforementioned creepy/pretty thing, especially in the way that the static, loping three-beat verses give way to a beautifully simple chorus melody and some killer harmonies. Again, a bit much on the lyrical front. The rest of the material is of varying quality, mostly good, but the arrangements are uniformly strong and the vocal performances (you sensing a pattern here?) engaging. The second of the three Sadies collaborations, "Lion's Jaws," is my least favorite track, mostly because Case's singing is lacking in subtlety. In general, I'm happier with Fox Confessor when there's less of the dramatics and/or knowing winks at genre getting between me and the music.

Both the album and the songs are shortish, making this an easy listen in addition to being an engaging one. The production's boomy and the vocals reverberant so listening at low-to-mid volume's the thing to do. Recommended, with a couple of provisos.

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