Countrified chanteuse Neko Case has wrought a conflicting mass of emotions into a brooding, complex work of art that’s as heart-stoppingly beautiful as her bell-clear soprano. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood couples loneliness with true love, glamour with simplicity, dark mythology with emotional reality. These bundled contradictions are synthesized into one vision through a maturing artist’s near-flawless execution.
Case’s voice indelibly colors her music, and it’s still the most arresting element here. But the album’s production, for which Case collaborated with Darryl Neudorf, should cement Case’s reputation as an artist in complete control – not just of her still-shocking vocal talent, but of the way we hear each caramel-smooth dulcet syllable, each emotionally charged lyrical image, every swirl of strings cymbals underneath.
The simple, slightly muted instrumentals on Confessor spotlight Case’s reverb-tinged melodies in such a way that, under a lesser vocalist, might sound boring. But Case has created a sort of oil-on-watercolor soundscape, gently softening both the featured attraction and her supporting cast into a glimmering sound palette. While the vocals enthusiastically take center stage, instrumental elements, such as the lithe piano on “Margaret vs. Pauline,” the stinging guitar riff on “Hold On, Hold On” and Joey Burns’s deep, woody cello on spectacular closer “The Needle Has Landed,” attract significant attention when they emerge from the core sound.
Case avoids a diva-esque separation from the instrumentalists and backup vocalist – and they’re not exactly lightweights. Burns and John Convertino of Calexico, Case’s erstwhile bandmates Dallas Good and Travis Good of the Sadies, singer/songwriter Kelly Hogan and The Band’s stellar organist Garth Hudson construct the forest-lined highways, electrically charged pas de deux and dark cityscapes that complete Case’s clear, velvety narration.
While A.C. Newman, Case’s occasional bandmate in the New Pornographers, has said that some of his lyrics are chosen for their sound rather than their meaning, the scenarios Case constructs for her own voice to illustrate make the most of the pristine instrument with which they’re delivered. She woos our ears with joyfully belted lines like, “I’m holding out for that teenage feeling” at one moment and revealing desperation, power and grace with bitter words: “I leave the party at 3 a.m., alone, thank God, with a valium. / It’s the devil that I love.” Case’s thematic forays into spirituals sound more like parties than services, and her arrangement of the traditional “John Saw That Number,” with its tambourine jangles and church-basement piano, provides a moment of twangy levity amidst the artistically and emotionally complex material that makes up Confessor: It’s okay to just revel in the sound of her voice.
But it’s the state of limbo between sweetness and despair that inspires Case to explore emotionally; the sublime “Star Witness” describes a violent car crash that, metaphorically or literally, has claimed the singer’s love. “Don’t let him die,” she murmurs, before launching into the song’s hook – “Oh, how I forgot” – to close the episode.
But the album’s most affecting piece is “Maybe Sparrow,” an allegorical warning to the characters Case has inhabited on the rest of the album. “You’ll never pass / Beyond the gate,” she sings, not in warning, but in mourning; she’s already told us what happens to those who fly too high, too soon.
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is more than we could have expected; it’s more than we deserve. Case’s signature aptitude could catapult her to the front of the lineup of a dozen great bands or even to the top of the pop charts. But she’s given us an album’s worth of bewitching musical exultations that’s so much more than just the sum of her considerable talents.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars