Tuesday, February 20, 2007

And now a word about Neko Case.....

It's shocking now to think that just a couple of months ago, I had no real idea of who Neko Case was. Because I like alt-country and indie rock, I'd heard her name in the background for quite a while, but never connected it to anything. What's even more surprising is that my husband was the one who turned me on to her. I sometimes tease Myk that he has the musical taste of a 14-year-old boy. That's not really true -- he likes a broad range of stuff -- but he does seem to be a sucker for bands who make videos of themselves running through the woods wearing scary masks. Bands like Mushroomhead and SlipKnot, those love children of Marilyn Manson.

Myk would play her CD for me in the car, and at night, on those long drives home from L.A. or Orange County, I found myself wide awake and listening hard to each song, and then wanting to hear it again. And again. My first introduction was with her latest album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, which was released in 2006, and made many critics lists as one of the best albums of the year. Even Rolling Stone had it listed among its Top 50. Now I wonder, how did I ever live without her?

At the beginning of this year, I made a resolution to see her perform live, so you bet we were thrilled to get tickets for her February 17 show at the Henry Fonda theater in Hollywood. And I was thrilled when, before her set began, Neko came out and introduced a Very Special Guest, who turned out to be country legend Porter Wagoner. Now, I admit that I couldn't name you one of his songs off the top of my head, but still I knew all about his TV show and how he helped make Dolly Parton a star, and of course those swanky, glittery Nudie suits. He was there with Marty Stewart, who produced his latest album (on the same small label that Neko records for), and then Dwight Yoakum and Billy Bob Thornton came onstage, too, and I nearly froze to death from the freakin' coolness in the room. And then they were done and we had to wait some more and it was almost 10:30 and my feet in their narrow black flats were killing me, standing there on the hard concrete for two hours. But then Neko came out with her band and opened her mouth and sang, "Oh, lie, I thought you were golden/I thought you were wild...." and our hair blew back from the force of her voice and the walls seemed to tremble when she hit the highest notes and I think I heard something about how the back wall of the place was blown out, too. And it occured to me halfway through the show that I'd never been at a concert before where I'd heard my favorite kind of music played so loud and so well....all that sweet ache of the slide guitar and power of the guitars right there in my chest, finally, after thirty-eight years on the planet.

It was a good show.

I don't know what to say about Neko's voice that hasn't already been said better and more eloquently elsewhere, but I'll try. She has a huge, huge voice, a physical force of a voice. It's been compared to Patsy Cline's voice many times, and I agree -- Patsy at her most hurt or fiesty, like in "She's Got You," or "Seven Lonely Days." She's not a singer, so much as a belter. Neko is often put into the alt-country or "noir-country" (whatever that means) genre, but really, she doesn't quite fit there, even though her music is full of banjos and slide guitar and deep, plucky bass notes. Highbrow honky-tonk, maybe.

Here's a comparison that I haven't read elsewhere: not so much in the earlier, twangier CDs, but in her last few albums like Fox Confessor and Blacklisted, the evocative mood and sound of her music reminds me very much of the intrumental tracks by Angelo Badalamenti on David Lynch's Wild At Heart soundtrack. Retro-edged, dark, spooky sounds to play on your car radio while driving very late at night. Also, a more literary comparison: the feel of Fox Confessor makes me think of Richard Ford's story collection Rock Springs, the cold, windswept, near-empty streets of his rural Montana in the 50s, and the ever-present dive bars that his characters (even the children) always seem to end up in at some point. And speaking of cold and windswept: I'm not the only one who finds Fox Confessor to be very much a winter album. The tone and texture of the songs remind me of bare trees, empty, steel-gray skies and a stripped-down landscape.

(Sigh. This is why I never became a music writer -- it's all comparison and similes, and nothing you can write can really evoke or come close to touching the work -- unless maybe you're Lester Bangs. And even then...).

But before I sign off on this love letter, I need to touch on the other element that makes Neko so amazing, which is her songwriting. Even if you ignored that voice, much of what keeps me coming back over & over to the songs is the power of her writing. I've already used the words evocative and moody and haunting way too many times in the post, and I'm really, really hesitant to use the word poetry unless we're talking about Bob Dylan, but....man. The best songs on Fox Confessor are no simple, catchy love jingles, but tricky and complicated narratives that tell stories, yet leave a lot of wide open spaces between the lines to fill in on your own. At first, I thought my favorite song on the album was "Hold On, Hold On," if only for this line:

"The most tender place in my heart is for strangers/
I know its unkind but my own blood's much too dangerous."

And then there's the pure storytelling in "Margaret vs. Pauline," about two girls from opposite sides of the tracks:

"Two girls ride the blue line/Two girls walk down the same street/
One left a sweater sittin' on the train and the other lost three fingers at the cannery...."

But in the end I think my favorite song on the album is "Star Witness," and it's dark tale of life and death among the lower-class. The sheer imagery in the song takes my breath away and reminds me, more than any book I've read lately, of the power words have to create whole worlds in just a few precise, brushstroking lines:

"Trees break the sidewalk/And the sidewalk skins my knees
There's glass in the thermos and blood on my jeans/
Nickels and dimes of the Fourth of July roll off in a crooked line/
To the chain-link lots where the red-tails dive/
Oh, how I forgot what it's like...."

My. Goodness.

Lately when I go out at night by myself, finally away from the demands of the children and the care and keeping of this house, I find myself driving effortlessly down the long streets of town, listening hard to Neko, and alone, alone, in the most perfect and empty way. I feel like I could keep on driving all night, across the freeway and hundreds of miles of open road, and not get tired with that voice in the car with me. Since Myk recently made me a big mix CD with four of her albums on it, all I can say is -- honey, consider yourself warned. Next time it's a really bad day, I might just get in the car, fill up the tank and keep on going until I'm at that surfboard shop in Mexico.

And finally -- finally! Let me just say this, which is true for all of my favorite writers and artists, the ultimate compliment, because it means I'm so deeply inspired:

She makes me want to write, to get it all out, and not stop until the story is told.

"And I said, "Amen..."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes..yes..yes...Neko Case is awesome!

9:45 AM  

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