Monday, September 2, 2013

FIRST IMPRESSION: Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Neko Case albums are a love it or leave it proposition.  Since retooling her sound with 2006’s watershed “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood”, you more or less know what you are getting: that clarion call voice singing oddly metered lines over generally reverbed backing that mixes the alt-country of her earlier albums with a more bent take on what Greil Marcus dubbed “the old, weird America”. Sister-in arms Kelly Hogan provides the harmonies on most songs.  It’s affecting and well-written, with interesting and unique imagery. At first listen, “The Worse Things Get…” sounds not too dissimilar from “Fox Confessor” or 2009’s great follow-up “Middle Cyclone” and that is not necessarily a bad thing. 

The difference, however, lies in the details.  Case sounds angrier than ever on searing lead single, “Man”, spitting out lines and dropping F-bombs against a fuzzed-out backing that hews closer to indie rock than she has in quite some time (credit fully given to M. Ward for the biting guitar work).  Playing with gender has long been a tactic in Case’s wheelhouse, but never has she been as upfront about her insistence that she be treated as an equal: “I'm a man / You'll have to deal with me / My proxy is mine /You'll deal with me directly”.   Likewise, she employs background vocals and brass in different and intriguing ways.  The honking horns on “Bracing For Sunday” push the song into Tom Waits territory while the fanfare on album closer “Ragtime” serves as cheerful reinforcement of the lyrics’ call for rebirth. 

There is nothing here as devastating as “Star Witness” or as absolutely melodic as “This Tornado Loves You”, but Case still sings the hell out of it all and delivers enough chills on tracks like “Local Girl” or the Nico cover “Afraid” to justify the trip.  Consistency is an underrated quality, and the world could do far worse than receiving a good-to-great Neko Case album every few years.   

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