CD has chapters, but Case doesn't play by the book
By Greg Kot
Tribune music critic
Published March 12, 2006
As confirmed by her latest album, "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood"
(Anti), Neko Case isn't just another pretty voice. She's also an
extraordinary songwriter, musician and producer with exacting
The tough part is how to meet them. Having a sound in mind and nailing
it on a recording can often seem like two opposing paths, especially
for a perfectionist such as Case.
That's where Lloyd comes in.
Lloyd is the aging greyhound Case saved from a premature death at an
animal shelter, and he was her constant companion in the recording
studio during the making of "Fox Confessor" the last two years.
"Lloyd was a calming presence," says Craig Schumacher, who engineered
the sessions at his Tucson studio Wavelab. "Neko would sometimes get
frustrated with the way things were going and Lloyd, who is just the
most mellow dog you could possibly imagine, would pick up on it and
get upset. And then she'd just have to laugh. Lloyd would relax her
and everybody else with his presence. He should have a co-producer
credit on the album."
It's just one indication that Case does things her own way. For the
Chicago-based artist, her latest album marks a new peak in a career
that has become more willful, quirky and independent as it has
proceeded even as her popularity has widened. Where once she might've
been characterized as primarily a singer who had to rely on other
musicians and engineers to help guide her in completing an album, she
now oversees every sonic detail, from a song's conception to its final
Started in punk bands
Case was born an only child in 1970 and grew up in Tacoma, Wash. She
cut her musical teeth as a drummer in several punk bands, but found
her voice singing along with country and gospel albums by the likes of
Loretta Lynn and Bessie Smith & Her Gospel Pearls. Though she remains
a key member in the increasingly successful Vancouver pop-rock band
the New Pornographers, her primary focus in the last decade has been
on a series of solo recordings, including two for Chicago-based
Bloodshot Records, that have merged country, gospel and soul into
showcases for her stirring vocals and vivid story songs.
"It's been amazing to watch her grow and learn how to steer songs in
the studio," says Darryl Neudorf, who has worked with Case as a
producer or mixer since her 1997 debut, "The Virginian."
"At first she didn't play an instrument outside of drums and vocals,
but now she plays tenor guitar and six-string guitar, and she's able
to write songs from start to finish on her own, without a
collaborator," Neudorf says. "As she's learned things about playing
and recording, she's gotten more control over her art in every way."
Case's friend and frequent vocal collaborator, Kelly Hogan, says the
singer didn't just want to coast on her vocal gifts, though she easily
could have. "Knowing her since '97, it's like she's learned Chinese
since then," Hogan says. "She's learned the technical language of
music and it's enabled her to take total control of her records."
That sense of command is why the songs on "Fox Confessor" don't sound
quite like anyone else's; they merge Southern Gothic murder ballads
and centuries-old folk and fairy tales into a dream world of rarely
reassuring narratives. The album is lush, even swoon-worthy in
sections, but it's also disturbing, spackled with violent imagery that
may or may not be symbolic of a world in which beheadings and
terrorist bombings are a nightly news staple.
"She's not much for repetition as a songwriter," Neudorf says, "and
that doesn't make for an easy listen. It's an album that defies
category, and it unfolds like a concept album. It's a feeling I can
only compare to seeing a great film, where the impact lingers for days
and days. Like you're not quite sure what you just saw, but it
affected you deeply."
In the world staked out by "Fox Confessor," life is divided into
predators and prey, and Case's songs are a menagerie of symbolic
characters drawn from the eat-or-be-eaten wild: the naive sparrow, the
devouring lion, the vampire who has a "tender place in my heart for
strangers." Her singing is bathed in cavernous echo and virtuoso
moments: the a cappella intro to "John Saw That Number," the way she
lingers over the word "hard" in "That Teenage Feeling," the
otherworldly howl of the "tender wolves" in "Star Witness." Most of
the songs avoid typical verse-chorus structures, and instead assume
the form of dramatic short stories set to music, an impression
affirmed by a booklet that divides the album into chapters.
Exploring outer limits
"I've always been fascinated by fairy tales," says Case, an avid
reader. "But we really don't have fairy tales anymore. Movies have
taken their place, and modern fiction seems to be in this rut of the
coming-of-age story, which is getting really boring. I'm trying to
find things on the outer limits of experience. I really love the
Eastern European fairy tales because they're not only dark but they're
also funny and not overly moral."
Case's heavy use of symbolism is also a means of avoiding more
confessional and autobiographical songs, of which she has also tired.
There's plenty of Case's story in these songs, it's just more artfully
veiled. The macabre "Dirty Knife," for example, is based on a family
story told to her by her mother.
"In the song, there's one guy going mad," Case says. "In my family,
there was a little farmhouse [in Washington state] where four people
lived and everyone went completely crazy at the same time. By the time
they were discovered, they'd all gone so mad they'd burned all the
furniture in the house to keep the house warm. My mom didn't tell me
how it ended, but I think they all got lead poisoning from the well."
The graphic imagery contrasts with often-wondrous music. Case's
handpicked collaborators and their instruments move in and out of the
mix like characters in a movie; the rippling piano of The Band's Garth
Hudson on "Margaret vs. Pauline," the shivering cello of Calexico's
Joey Burns on "Lion's Jaws," Jon Rauhouse's undulating banjo on "Maybe
Sparrow." Most of all, there is the gospel flavor imparted by the
voices of Case and Hogan. Case's dramatic a cappella intro to the
traditional spiritual "John Saw That Number" is bookended by a
rapturous call-and-response coda with Hogan.
"It's in my DNA, and me and Neko have been talking about doing a
gospel record since we first met," says Hogan, who like Case is a
singer in her mid-30s whose roots are in indie rock but whose heart
has been captured by traditional American music.
For Case, gospel had the same kind of heartfelt authenticity she heard
in traditional country music, and the two became the lenses through
which she saw herself as a singer.
"It's funny, because my zeal for any sort of religious message has
declined as the years go, but my love of gospel keeps growing," she
says. "The idea that there are people who might actually believe this
doctrine, rather than use it for some sort of shield for economic
development and persecution, is very powerful. I was into punk rock in
the '80s, and punk was becoming hard-core, a lot of guys doing macho,
melody-less music, and I felt as a person I was not being represented
at all in that music. Punk was lacking the passion that punk promised
to deliver. But gospel delivered it times ten. These women were
singing about God, and this music was way more about love than the
religions I had been exposed to as a kid."
Case's passion as a singer is matched by her discerning ear as a
producer, and the art of "Fox Confessor" is as much in what is left
out as what is left in. For all the layers of sound created by her
dream studio band in Tucson, the songs are stripped back to their
essentials, and the album feels wide and spacious.
"I'm not saying I achieved it, but classic songwriting doesn't adhere
to a particular time or place," she says. "That's why songs like
`Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' by the Platters still sound so great. I
don't know who is making the smoke get in his eyes, and I don't know
if it's a he or a she. It's just a feeling that's being described, and
it's performed beautifully, and yet it's kind of creepy and
mysterious. That's the kind of tension and feeling that I really love
to hear in a song."
Neko Case performs 8 p.m. March 31 at the Vic Theatre, 3145 N.
Sheffield Ave., 773-472-0449.