CRAVEN’S NOTES: The case for Neko
Saying you’ve never heard Neko Case sing is like saying you’ve never felt sunshine on your skin. It’s like saying you’ve never felt an ocean tide roll in about your ankles. It’s like saying you’ve never smelled the dirt after a fresh rain.
There are just some natural wonders every human was meant to know at some point in his or her life. And Neko Case’s voice is one of those wonders.
In a pop culture that positions Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Katy Perry at the top of the pantheon of female singers, Neko Case sticks out like a strawberry in a bag of bling. No purveyor of melismatic melodrama is she, no over-compressed delivery system for teenage male fantasies, no glib provider of smooth and easy romantic fluff.
For most of her career, Case has exercised her amazing lungs and vocal cords in the service of songs about fictional characters, or interpreting the compositions of other writers, like her songwriting partner in the New Pornographers, A.C. Newman. But on her new album, “The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You,” Case steps out from behind her mask and sings some of the most personal songs she’s recorded since her debut album hit record store shelves 16 years ago. (Sixteen years ago, there were still such things as “record store shelves.”)
Case had spent the last three years battling depression following the deaths of her beloved grandmother and her estranged parents, but when she finally followed her Top Ten hit album “Middle Cyclone,” it was with the best record of her career.
Case has always sung about powerful, hard-fighting women, and the tigress spirit still stalks through songs like “Man” and “Bracing For Sunday.” But she shows somewhat more uncommon tenderness here as well — especially in the much-commented-upon and emotionally devastating “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” a song based on an actual event when Case witnessed a mother tell her child to “get the f— away from me,” and which the singer delivers a cappella. Anyone familiar with Case’s personal story will immediately know this song (which Case ends by declaring to the child: “I will love you, even if I don’t see you again”) is as much about her own neglected childhood as that of the youngster she saw being rebuked by his mother in Hawaii.
Numerous guest artists spice up the album. Especially noteworthy is the contribution of M. Ward (of She & Him fame), whose incendiary guitar makes “Man” burn, but whose sweet vocal contributions to Case’s cover of Robyn Hitchcock’s “Madonna of the Wasps” (available on the deluxe edition of the album) offer a balm for some of the album’s more naked, hurting tracks.
If you value thoughtful, deep songs delivered in a voice like no other, you should immediately dive into “The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You.” Like sunlight, the tide and dirt, the music of Neko Case will do good things for your soul.
Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog and also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog at http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog/. You can also find him on Facebook.
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