Music of the Week &mdash June 11, 2006


Neko Case: Blacklisted

The story goes that Schumann, on first hearing Chopin play, cried out "Hats off, gentlemen—a genius!" I'm slightly embarrassed to say that something of that sort went through my mind after I'd heard this album a few times. No, I don't really think Neko Case is a genius in the sense that Chopin was, and anyway "genius" is a term that should, in my view, be applied to only a rare few people. So let's just say that within the realm of popular music this album stands way above most, and that Neko Case has a formidable degree of talent as both singer and songwriter. As to the former, I can't, from the point of view of personal reaction, put it any more strongly than to say that her voice can move me the way Emmy Lou Harris's does. As to the latter, let's just say that every song on this album is striking and memorable.

The only quibble I'd make about her songwriting is that she's chosen the obscure, elliptical, imagistic path for her lyrics, and while she does this very well, at times brilliantly, I think the songs often end up feeling a little too diffuse and open. Tightening this up some would give them more emotional punch. The two brilliantly-chosen covers here bring this out: their lyrics are less deliberately poetic, but they have a structure and coherence that makes them stand alone as songs in a way that Case's own work does not—I don't think it's very likely that other artists would cover her songs.

So what does it actually sound like? Well, I can't think of a way to describe it that wouldn't make it sound ordinary. Call it folk-rock, alt-country, Americana, or singer-songwriter for a very generic tag, but mainly call it exceptional popular music by an artist who could die proud of her achievement if she never sang another note after this (although on the basis of one sample track I think her new album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, may be at least as good). It has to be pointed out that the producer and supporting musicians, including Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico (a band of which I've heard just enough to make me want to hear a lot more), are major contributors to the magic, providing a Ghost-Riders-in-the-Sky sort of atmosphere.

B+ (maybe turning into an A later—I don't want to be too hasty)





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