You have to start somewhere when delving into a musical genre previously
untouched by your ears, and while I'm sure some hardened historian would've
preferred a classic act as my first taste of the powers of country, it was
actually Neko Case who warmed me up to a genre previously disdained in my eyes.
Prior to that point, country music had come across to me, for the most part, as
obnoxiously square and backwards. Although in high school I began to become
fascinated by the so-called alt-country movement with folks like the Old 97's
and Wilco, it wasn't until I heard Neko Case's solo opus Blacklisted in
college that something with such a defined twang and adherence to country
tradition (at least in comparison to most other "alt-country" artists) really
grabbed me and rearranged my prior bias. It was a pretty short road to Johnny
Cash and Loretta Lynn after that.
As with most first-time listeners of Case, it was her rich, vigorous voice that
most immediately stood out. And while Blacklisted saw a more pronounced
Americana flavor still indebted to such honky-tonk rabble-rousers as Will
Oldham, Lambchop, and even Nick Cave, it was still a far cry from pure
traditionalism. Still, there was more than a touch of C&W past lurking in the
shadows, adding a touching bit of reverence for an oft-misunderstood and
exploited genre. Case sang like most country singers in the mainstream and
elsewhere no longer did, melding the jazz-inflected composure of Patsy Cline
among others to her own devices. In fact, Case had the control and restraint
most vocalists regardless of genre no longer carried with them.
With her first proper release for the Epitaph-owned Anti-, following the live
trifle The Tigers Have Spoken, Case continues right where her tenure on
Bloodshot left off; and while saying Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is
more of the same might seem like an easy answer, it's far from a definitive one.
Working with a more scopic cast of players, among them Calexico, The Sadies, and
Giant Sand impresario Howe Gelb, Fox Confessor is the kind-of polished
testimony befitting of her move to a more prominent (Anti- also includes Tom
Waits and Nick Cave among its roster), yet fitting label.
Interestingly, Case has become known more for her role as a pop vocalist in the
New Pornographers rather than the countrified torch-singer she remarkably excels
at; and while countless have praised her appearances on the Pornographers'
records, Fox Confessor, like her other solo endeavors, finds her voice in
a much more emotive and reined-in environment.
Case has come along way from the sometimes self-consciously quirky and doctrinal
material that turned up on her first two efforts, The Virginian and
Furnace Room Lullaby, and Fox Confessor, along the lines of
Blacklisted, is another masterpiece of slow-burning American gothic. Opener
"Margaret Vs. Pauline" floats around dusty roads with atmospheric slide guitars
while "Star Witness" shuffles along modestly with a gorgeous string section.
Again, it's Case's voice that's the star here, propelling these standard fares
of neo-roots rock into haunting territory. While the more fleshed-out
arrangements give a certain sense of extra professionalism to the record, songs
like the sparse "A Widow's Toast" and "Dirty Knife" find Case further pushing
her sound into more demanding territory. Elsewhere, "John Saw The Number" is an
old-timey stomper and perhaps Case's best approximation of traditional ethos
Fox Confessor runs through its gamut in a warp-speed of sorts, wrapping
up in about 35 minutes. If any complaint can still be made about Case's original
work, it's that at times it still feels fragmented – not underdeveloped per say,
but cut too soon or when ideas ceased (see "That Teenage Feeling" and "At
Last"). Otherwise, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is a transcendent
accomplishment that, although it lacks Blacklisted's spooky dourness,
proves that the ghost of "alt-country" still has some more straightforwardly
captivating gems lurking about. Neko Case is more than just an indie-pop
chanteuse, and having done the country genre good for some years now, she offers
proof that her soul-melting intonations are cause for much celebration.
1. Margaret Vs. Pauline
2. Star Witness
3. Hold On, Hold On
4. A Widow's Toast
5. That Teenage Feeling
6. Fox Confessor Brings The Flood
7. John Saw That Number
8. Dirty Knife
9. Lion's Jaws
10. Maybe Sparrow
11. At Last
12. The Needle Has Landed