I love your long shadows

**I know, I know, I am weeks late with this. But I did write it two weeks ago, really, I did. I am sorry. I was busy.**

Neko Case is back with her first studio album in three years. It is probably a good thing that she waited so long, because that is about how long it took for me to be able to say I get Fox Confessor. But now, after tours alone and with new Pornographer, an Austin City Limits broadcast (and CD), a move to a 100 acre farm in rural Vermont, and a Craigslist shopping spree, we are presented with Middle Cyclone. Yes, this album is currently for sale at Starbucks and some songs do feature choruses and there are loves songs, but rest assured, judging by my recent experience, most people still have no idea who she is and will think you are on the cutting edge for listening to this.

Sonically, the contrast with Fox Confessor is something of a give and take. This is not the extended harmonic vocabulary of the last album: the chord changes, while not necessarily predictable, are still part of the accepted canon. Certain elements (tremolo chords on “Vengeance is Sleeping”, occasional pitch bends, and a string of chords in open voicing and parallel motion over a tonic pedal in “Prison Girls” for instance) are used to great effect in maintaining the listeners’ interest. More than anything else, however, this is a coloristic record. In addition to her standard band and strings, “Fever” features a vintage delay pedal almost giving the guitar a detuned sound. The title track, with its music box obligato is the most stripped down cut on this album, and the intimacy is striking. Perhaps the most significant issue of instrumentation is the piano orchestra (obtained free of charge through Craigslist and crammed into the barn on Neko’s Vermont farm) appearing on three tracks.

Lyrics, however, were probably the most characteristic element of Neko’s last album. Her tendency to eschew the standard verse/chorus love song format in favor of a fairly tale infused narrative style set Fox Confessor apart from its contemporaries. Here, with “This Tornado Loves You”, we have an actual love song, albeit a surrealist one about a tornado (an actual tornado, this is not a metaphor) in love with a woman, singing (rather gruesomely) “Carved your name across three counties / ground it in with bloody hides / Their broken necks will line the ditch / ’til you stop it / stop this madness. / I want you”. “People Got a Lotta Nerve”, thrust upon the world on penalty of charitable donation weeks before the March 3 album release date, also breaks the Neko mold with an actual chorus (if a weak one) of “I’m a man eater / but you’re surprised when I eat ya”. These do not always fall flat, however. “Prison Girls” and its refrain: “I love your long shadows / and your gunpowder eyes” continues to haunt me, weeks after first hearing it. Perhaps the most stunning imagery comes from “Polar nettles”: “She is the centrifuge that throws / the spires from the sun / the Sistine Chapel / painted with a Gattling gun”. (“Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” includes the weakest rhyme I have ever heard [unfaithful/faithful-seriously?] but this is a cover, so I will not hold Neko responsible.)

Development-forward progress-is the mark of a mature artist (the satisfied never improve). With Fox Confessor, Neko Case claimed to be “just now figuring out what [her] style is.” Middle Cyclone, I would say, is proof that she had indeed found it. The two are distinctly different works (the current record occasionally blurring the line between Neko’s past projects and her work with the New Pornographers, including appearances by her fellow Pornographers as well as M Ward), but there is a definite sense running throughout that it is the same driving force behind the two (and it is not just that voice, magnificent as ever). I would rather not wait another three years for the next record, but if it is as good as this one, I will bide my time and hope Belle & Sebastian get off their butts and do something to tide me over.

*N.B. If you are a super nerd like I am, you will listen to the final track, “Marais La Nuit”, in its entirety (all 30 minutes of it), in search of polyrhythms.*

Some videos of Neko discussing Middle Cyclone: from ANTI- Records, QTV, and a QTV acoustic performance of “People Got a Lotta Nerve”

I kneel to the wheel of the Fox Confessor

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.

Stay with me, go places

For a good Christian girl, what better music to review than The New Pornographers? While their name might make you blush, The New Pornographers emerge unashamed of both their association with Canada (don’t lie, you doubt the Canadian music scene too-Celine Dion? Shania Twain? SUM 41? Really?) or their admiration of Burt Bacharach, whom they acknowledge as a serious influence. There’s nothing better than a band that embraces their identity…and no need to hide them from your parents, because after all, rock and roll is the new pornography (thanks, Jimmy Swaggart).

 In 2007, The New Pornographers released Challengers, an album which announces through its movement and unavoidable catharsis that the eight band members have officially synced. What sets them apart is that each song uniquely emphasizes rhythm and harmony, with enough melody to remain extremely accessible, but not so much that we’re bored out of our minds. The music moves, which is more than I can say for most pop music, where after 30 seconds, you’ve been there, you’ve done that, and you know where you’re going (back there again). With each song on Challengers, you’re going somewhere. In fact, you’re going to the epic “Unguided,” in the middle of the album, and the definite climax. In six minutes of brilliance, they crescendo until the final release. And then you can just stop the album because you will feel so free. Just kidding, don’t stop the album, unless it’s to cry a little, but turn it back on again after you’re done sobbing. You need the rest of the album to get your bearings back.

 Perhaps the most accessible songs because of their fantastic balance of rhythm, harmony, and melody are “My Rights Versus Yours,” a perfect, seductive first track, and “Myriad Harbour,” which features the most comprehensible lyrics on the entire album. Otherwise, who needs a drumset, or hell, a percussion section, when real string instruments (because we all hate crappy synths) drive “Failsafe” and “All the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth”? Answer: not us. I especially love how these lovely band members use their voices as instruments, giving a mystical, haunting effect to “Challengers” and “Adventures in Solitude.” Altogether, it’s refreshing to hear such beautiful harmonies, which must be the benefit of having at least four vocalists.

What do their lyrics mean? Who knows and who cares? They’re absolutely gorgeous even if they don’t make much sense. “Come head-on, full circle, our arms fill with miracles, play hearts, kid, they work well…”

 While “Unguided” must be the climax of the album, each song provides its own cathartic effect. Never before have you experienced this kind of release in so many songs on a single album. And this is why we call them The New Pornographers.