Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

One of the benefits of this blog is that it forces me to think (uh-oh) about why I like the music I like (oh, okay). I think I’ve noted before that I tend to be fairly forgiving of vocalists. I value authenticity and emotional resonance much more than technical skill. I think that I also have a difficult time recognizing vocal talent, though. Perhaps this is because I have a low threshold of “good enough,” or because my ear resides at that ground floor so often, or because there are aspects of singing that I lack the experience or expertise to recognize as signposts of quality. But I am also confident that sometimes I get it right (though I am less sure that I get it right for the right reasons). I can tell that Neko Case, for example, has an impressive, powerful voice. Can I explain why? No. It’s still probably still an emotion-based appreciation, just one that happens to also reflect genuine talent on the part of Case. How fortunate we are to be able to receive the gift of Case’s singing.

What I Think of This Album

On the one hand, this is a very poppy album for Case. Half of its dozen songs are under three minutes long, and the rhythms are generally faster than on earlier work. On the other hand, this is no bid for stardom, with the almost trademark sideways nature of Case’s imagery in full force and frankly, little effort made to show off her voice in an obvious way. Written while she was coping with depression, this album is as difficult as it is tuneful.

I am not a fan of the chorus to “Night Still Falls” or its gospel ending, but the rest is an amazing study in self-reflection, with devastating lyrics:  “I’m gonna go where my urge leads no more / Swallowed, waist-deep, in the gore of the forest / A boreal feast / Let it finish me, please / ‘Cause I revenge myself all over myself / There’s nothing you can do to me.” This is followed up by the rousing “Man,” in which Case declares “I’m a man / That’s what you raised me to be / I’m not an identity crisis” over the rapids-and-waterfall drumming of Kurt Dahle (the New Pornographers), the triple guitar fireworks of M. Ward (She & Him), Paul Rigby, and Steve Turner (the guy from Mudhoney? I am not sure), and Bo Koster’s (My Morning Jacket) pumping piano chords.

Much calmer but no less melodic is “I’m from Nowhere,” in which Case continues her exploration of who she is and what is expected of her:  “I was surprised when you called me a lady / ‘Cause I’m still not so sure that’s what I wanna be” and “God, if you only knew / What my candied fist can do.” Her vocals on this track are heavenly. “Bracing for Susan” is an odd, Victorian-hued tale of incest and murder, nonetheless elevated by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin’s baritone sax.

Motherhood does not escape Case’s wondering eye or rebellious spirit, either. On opener “Wild Creatures,” she considers conflicting facets of the mother-daughter relationship (“As you fight alongside / You’ll discover my weakness / I am not fighting for your freedom / I am fighting to be wild”). More to the point is the acapella and disturbing “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” in which Case addresses a young girl she witnesses being verbally abused by her mother. While obviously heartfelt, it is a bit on-the-nose, in the same way that REM’s “Everybody Hurts” or XTC’s “Dear God” are straightforward dissertations that suffer from their lack of subtlety. I’m probably in the minority on all three of those songs. Tracyanne Campbell of Camera Obscura sings background vocals on “Honolulu,” not that you can tell.

“Calling Cards” is a wonderful song about long-distance love, with some subtle brass work by Jacob Valenzuela and Martin Wenk, both of Calexico. Similarly, “City Swans” is a grey story of a sad and possibly illicit relationship; that said, the music is cheerfully uptempo, driven by Bottle Rocket Tom Ray’s bass and shot through with cello from Joey Burns (Giant Sand, Calexico), to say nothing of the excellent lead work of Rigby, and Case’s powerful performance.

Speaking of guests, Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, John Zorn, Elvis Costello) plays the piano on the sweet and light cover of Nico’s “Afraid.” How many times did someone suggest to Neko that she should cover Nico? I am sure she is happy to put that joke to rest. The black-and-blue, chime-flecked “Local Girl” has a fantastic call-and-response chorus, with Case, Rachel Flotard (Visqueen), and Kelly Hogan collaborating on the background vocals, as well as the angelic cooing towards the end.

The deceptive “Where Did I Leave That Fire?” suggests it’s going to be a haunting experimental piece (“I wanted so badly not to be me”) but ends up picking up the pace as Case rediscovers her inner strength. “Ragtime” would have been better titled “60’s pop,” with a hypnotic bass line, a robust arrangement (horns, synths, cello, sax, organ, etc.), and a winking vocal from a battered but triumphant Case.

My CD comes with three bonus tracks:  a more optimistic reworking of “Magpie to the Morning” from Middle Cyclone; a throwaway collaboration with A.C. Newman (the New Pornographers) and Eric Bachman (Archers of Loaf); and a disappointing cover of Robyn Hitchcock’s “Madonna of the Wasps” on which M. Ward handles half the singing. While I am very pleased that Case pronounces it “Madonner,” the song feels like a missed opportunity. Even Howie Gelb’s (Giant Sand) organ and synth work don’t help much.

Among the guests not already mentioned are frequent collaborators Jon Rauhouse (Old 97s) and John Convertino (also of Calexico); newcomers Jim James and Carl Broemel, both of My Morning Jacket; and Tom Hagerman (DeVotchKa). 

The Best Thing About This Album

My gut says “Man,” the obvious choice, or “Ragtime,” the good-time tune, but I think my heart says “I’m From Nowhere,” with its gorgeous vocal and impressively impressionistic lyrics (e.g., “With every fashion’s flame / Every jet plane’s lie / Every second helping of that off-ramp fame / We die”).

Release Date

September, 2013

The Cover Art

Once again the product of Case and Kathleen Judge, this cover is sort of a mess. There are hand-drawn serpents, serial killer/holiday lights font for the title, Case’s taffy-pulled face (with a very light grid pattern superimposed), and a rather puritanical collar to her top.

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