A certain 12 songs have been ringing in my ears for the better part of a week. It is not some brilliant new record from some up-and-coming indie anti-hero. It’s an album by a veteran icon, and an old(ish) one that I feel I am only now beginning to fully appreciate. With the release of Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone looming in the very, very near future (two hours), I have been in preparation with the near endless repetition of her last studio album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. For an artist who is “just now figuring out what [her] style is”, it is useful for the lowly listener to review where she is coming from in order to make better sense of where she is going. So don’t think of this as a “review” so much as a refresher: a sort of Middle Cyclone prep course, if you will.
Neko Case been described as sort of alt-country act, which was true enough for her first two offerings, but Blacklisted saw Neko (not Nico) expand her influences to include more blues and roots influences. And following two and a half years of work, a live album, and tours with the New Pornographers and in support of her solo material came Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, which is about as country as Nickel Creek’s Why Should the Fire Die? Was bluegrass: sort of a “yeah, ok, but not really” thing.
For one thing, it is the harmonies that make Fox Confessor stand out from the rest. Much of this is due in part to the efforts of Rachel Flotard and Kelly Hogan who provided backing vocals for the album. Hogan in particular is one Case credits as a proponent of “the note less travelled”. Her distinctive voicings (and I mean that in the authorial sense) can be heard in the cascading echoes of “The Needle Has Landed” and on “Dirty Knife” with its parallel organum at the fourth (yes, I speak musicology) bridge. Most importantly, these backing vocals are never overdone, but always aptly place, which only serves to enhance their effectiveness. Responsibility does not rest solely with Kelly Hogan, however. The opening stanza of “Lion’s Jaws”, for instance, features a melodic turn that can only be described as the musical equivalent of the opening paragraphs of Nabokov’s Lolita (thanks to the inclusion of the minor subdominant, one of my favorite harmonic moves, particularly useful in hymn singing, but I digress) and that is all Neko. (There is also the admirable use of a VMaj7 two thirds of the way through “A Widow’s Toast” to consider.)
Perhaps even more than her harmonic language, it is Case’s lyric writing that sets this record apart from others. Rather than the “this is how I feel” approach of many songwriters, she assumes a narrative style replete with vivid imagery more likely to conjure up visions of an Eastern European fairy tale or Neil Gaiman story than a Top 40 love song, eschewing the typical verse/chorus/verse/chorus formula in favor of a through composed, almost stream of consciousness format. Case, herself, views her songs from a more cinematic angle, and with lyrics like”He sang nursery rhymes to paralyze/The wolves that eddy out of the corners of his eyes/But they squared him frozen where he stood/In the glow of the furniture piled high for firewood” (“Dirty Knife”),the comparison is easy to see. Neko may reserve her respect for songwriters who can say the most with the fewest words, but I for one appreciate the rhythms and cadences of her self-professed verbosity, such as the lilt of “Lion’s Jaw” (“You’re gone. The trees are so quiet/When your hand was in my pocket/How they swayed from side to side/Now the meddling sky and my snowy eye/Sees a different night”).
It is easy enough to pick out a favorite facet of Fox Confessor, be it the harmonies, the poetry, or the artwork (a great deal of which was contributed by Case, herself), but it is so much more than that. It is the comprehensive cohesion of varied musical influences, storytelling, production value (reverb!), and that voice-that voice, “big as a Montana sky” according to the Chicago Tribune-that transforms Fox Confessor from your typical orchestral alt-country epic into a transcendent, ethereal aural experience for the listener.