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ScarletWeather


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Jul
4th
2018

Music Cabinet: The Strange and Varied Career of Neko Case · 6:23pm July 4th

Neko Case is up in the running for my favorite artist of all time.

As you can probably guess by the fact that I featured a weird indie pop group for my last music cabinet, my tastes tend to be (unfortunately) hipster. If they're a prolific singer/songwriter group that gets almost no radio play and has a rootsy/americana/folk-inspired sound, there's a good chance I have fallen in love with them. And if I had to blame one artist for why that is - because god knows it wasn't anything my parents got me into - it'd be Case, the alt-country singer whose name makes her sound like a weird Japanese idol singer.

Yeah get that mental image out of your head if that's what you were thinking of. Neko Case's name is pronounced "Nico", it's Ukrainian in origin rather than Japanese, and the most foreign thing she's ever done is play a lot of music in Canada. Also she looks like this:

Yes, that is an album cover showing her standing on her actual car with a drawn sword. This woman is my favorite human being in history. And oh god does she have a fascinating and insanely cool career full of music worth listening to.

Where have I heard her before?

So if you've heard Neko Case, there's a good chance you immediately think of Katniss Everdeen. Why? Well, because she wrote some songs for The Hunger Games film.

This is one of the more inspired film soundtrack choices in history, because the song not only fits Katniss Everdeen pretty well but fits right into Neko Case's established ouvre. Still, it's not even in the top ten of things she's ever done - and she has done a lot of things. Some of you might know a few of them already. But like any good story, I think it's best to start talking about Neko Case right about at the beginning.

What's her career been like?

Okay, if you listened to that Hunger Games track you are never going to guess what genre Neko Case got started playing back in the '90s. No. Really. You will not guess. Try anyway though! Don't scroll down and just take your time. Have you thought of something yet? Okay. Okay get ready for this because you're wrong.

That is Vancouver-based pop punk trio Maow performing "Ms. Levefre" in perhaps the most '90s music video I have ever seen. Neko's the one on drums. Yes, really. She was living in Canada at the time because she was attending university on a student visa, and just starting playing drums with a lot of local pop-punk bands making jangly, happy music. Eventually she teamed up with two other people to form Maow, and they recorded a whole album together. It is called "The Unforgiving Sounds of Maow". I am not kidding.

Now, here's the thing: apparently Case wasn't super happy with pop punk. She didn't hate it or anything, but she was kind of turned off by the shrinking presence of female roles in bands in the area, and Maow didn't exactly take off, and she had to move to Seattle anyway. So she did the most natural thing in the world: she became a honky-tonk swing style country singer.

I'm not kidding.

At the time she was recording and performing as "Neko Case and Her Boyfriends", which she'd drop two albums later, but yeah. This is what her sound was like literally right after leaving Maow. The Unforgiving Sounds of Maow was released in 1996. The Virginian was released in 1997. This is a year later. Imagine if Taylor Swift had gone from her first album to her latest album in less than a year. That's how insane this shift is, musically speaking.

What you'll notice about this song - besides the fact that it's not all that distinct or great - is that Case is selling it as hard as she can. Critics at the time apparently compared her vocals to Dolly Parton from time to time, and I can see why. She's got this great, haunting, powerful voice that just can't be mistaken for anyone else. Still, it'd take at least another album before she hit her stride. Also, Sam Raimi.

See Sam Raimi needed a song for this movie he made called The Gift which didn't take off, and for some reason he used Neko Case, of all people. Which was probably the first time the world got to hear the sound that would become Case's dominating feature for the rest of her career.

This is "Furnace Room Lullaby", from Neko Case's album of the same name. You will notice that this song is a lot moodier and more... alternative-sounding than "Thanks a Lot". Which makes sense, it's a murder ballad. You'll also notice that Case is just drinking her own milkshake by this point. Her vocals are borderline untouchable and just grab you by the throat and do not let go. I think Case noticed that, because "Furnace Room Lullaby" basically ended up being a signpost of things to come.

We're still like eighteen years from the present, incidentally. There's like six more albums she's recorded, including the one she literally just released. Like, this year.

Oh my god I love her so much.

Why Should I listen to Her?

So I will probably forgive you if you don't feel like tracking down copies of Maow's two-album discography or The Virginian after hearing samples of that period. Even Furnace Room Lullaby is a permissible skip. But starting with her 2002 album Blacklisted, Case just hit her stride and wrote some of the best songs of her career, and did not stop. Like here's "Things that Scare Me", which is the most jangly fun song I've ever heard about a sense of foreboding and paranoia. And then of course there's this:

So, some background for listening here: "Deep Red Bells" is about the Green River Killer. Neko Case was a kid living in the area where he operated.

Yeah.

Like for anyone else, I swear this would be the high point of their career and they'd never record anything better than a song this soaked in atmosphere and haunting detail - god the lines "who took the time to fold your clothes/and shook the valley of the shadow?" make me shake every time - but Neko Case? Neko Case just went on from this to record only my favorite album of her career four years later.

Look Y'all, You Have to Listen to "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood". The Whole Damn Thing.

I'm serious. No, I don't care if you have things to do. They can wait. Sit your ass down for forty minutes and listen to this whole album. There's a free stream of it provided by ANTI-records for Youtube, so you don't even have the excuse of not wanting to buy it or pirate it. It's free and legal. Like. Here. Here. Click the video thing. Please. Please god, Please. There are so many good songs on this album that it almost makes me angry. They are all amazing. Oh and by this point Case is collaborating with female vocalist Kelly Hogan on harmony and oh my god you guys just listen to this album.

Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh. My. God.

Okay moving on now this isn't even her last album because then we get-

Wait She Followed this Up with Middle Cyclone?

Oh my god. Okay. So while Fox Confessor is my favorite Neko Case album, Middle Cyclone is a pretty close second purely because of the power of "This Tornado Loves You". Some artists are in love with you. Some artists can't stand you. Neko Case is so in love with the object of the song that she compares herself to a destructive force ripping everything and anything in her path to shreds trying to find them.

Good Christ.

Oh and I'd be remiss not to point out that five years ago in 2013, Neko Case dropped her more straight-alternative album The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You. It's both a mouthful to say, impossible to remember how many commas to include - I got it wrong twice - and just. Oh god. This is also a great one. "Wild Creatures" is probably the best song on the whole thing. Also Emily Carroll did illustrations based on the lyrics. They're awesome.

Brief sidebar: if you don't know who Emily Carroll is, definitely google her, she's amazing and perfect and I wish I was half as talented as she is. Go to her website, read her whole body of work, get ready to be spooked, I love her so much.

Alright. Alright. Whew. Finally, we're at the present.

What's Her Music Actually About?

So starting all the way back on "Fox Confessor", Neko Case has always had this undercurrent of both lady empowerment in a really subtle way, but also objections to the death of wildness and the way people treat animals. And not in like, a "I make a lot of songs about saving the whales" kind of way, I mean a lot of her music deals with the way people react to wild things, and how we treat their wildness as something to subjugate and destroy rather than accept and live alongside. You can see glimpses of that on "The Tigers have Spoken" (and also a joke about feeding babies to tigers), but it's probably most well-realized in "People Gotta Lotta Nerve". That one's a great little track where Case kinda draws parallels between the way people are shocked when wild animals are - erm - wild, and human behavior and - okay god it's just a good song.

Beyond that basic theme, Case is just a brilliant storyteller. "Bracing for Sunday" and "Star Witness" stand out as examples, and of course half the songs I've linked here too. Between her stellar vocals and her penchant for stripping down words to their bare, emotional core, she envelops you both in a story and in a sense of that story. If you want to feel things, you could do worse than grabbing any Neko Case album post-Blacklisted and popping it on.

How do I Check Her Out?

So Neko Case is actually touring right now in celebration of the release of Hell-On, her latest album. I haven't talked about Hell-On that much because I'm still kind of processing my thoughts about it - it's like, her most opaque album lyrically and has some of her weirdest songs. Ever. But it's also really good. I think. At bare minimum it has perhaps her most quotable lines on it, even if I still have no idea what "Halls of Sarah" is about. "Last Lion of Albion" is pretty great though, and follows that theme of humanity's-relationship-to-wild-things I mentioned before.

Beyond that... god, I can't even recommend listening enough. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is a great jumping on point since it happened right about midway through her career, and it's a neat album to move both forward and backwards from to explore the rest of her career. And once you've exhausted all of that, I dunno. The New Pornographers, I guess?

Oh right I completely forgot to mention that. Yeah Neko Case has done vocals for The New Pornographers a lot. In fact, she was performing with them while writing and recording Hell-On. Oh, and forming a supergroup called "case/lang/veir" with two other indie artists. And just generally getting more done with the last five years of her life than most people do with all of theirs.

While her actual house was burning down.

No. Really. Apparently she denied it at one point to avoid stalkers.

What even.

In summary: Neko Case is one of those artists who's just done all the things forever, and you absolutely need to drop everything and listen to. Now.

I mean it.

Until next time, may birds on a wire not haunt you with a sense of foreboding and terror.

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Comments ( 5 )

Fox Confessor is so Good

I want to write stories with half as much passion as you write blog posts.

PresentPerfect
Author Interviewer

Oh man, I love Neko Case. :D Favs are "Knock Loud" and "Lady Pilot", which is weird, because I thought I had more. :B I've only just recently gotten to hear Middle Cyclone, but I liked a couple songs off that, too. :)

Can I also suggest the Aussie Courtney Barnett

I found Neko Case through the New Pornographers, which I found through something Canadian probably. I don't suppose you've tried The Walkabouts?
Anyway, I think that "Dirty Knife" does a better job at being "Furnace Room Lullaby" than "Furnace Room Lullaby" does, but Neko Case is generally aces and I will still pronounce it Neh-ko forever because I am many things but not Hungarian and I have hope in that.

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