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| Highest Rated 2006
Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Kevin Forest Moreau
Let's get this out of the way up front: Neko Case has an achingly
beautiful voice, and when she applies it to the right material -- even just
the right line, with the right inflection -- you want to drop everything
you're doing, track her down and ask her to marry you. It's a heartbreaking
instrument, devastating in its full-throated passion and Case's enviable
control of her pitch and timbre. It is, without a doubt, one of the most
compelling voices in all of modern music.
So when I say that Case's songwriting has never quite matched her vocal
gifts, that's not a backhanded compliment. She's a good songwriter --
sometimes a very good one. But it's safe to say she's still, if
you'll forgive the expression, finding her voice -- as are most songwriters
always working on their craft, striving to express themselves in clearer or
Case certainly does that on her new album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.
It's an ambitious record, to be sure. Songs meander along their own courses,
occasionally heedless of conventional song structure. And Case adds a level
of obliqueness and imagery to her lyrics. Sometimes, as on the stirring
opener "Margaret vs. Pauline" and the closing "The Needle Has Landed," that
approach yields tangible rewards. But at other times, as on "A Widow's
Toast," it feels precious. With an instrument as vivid in its clarity as
Case's, resorting to the coy, self-congratulatory wordiness of English major
undergrads is a disservice.
Fox Confessor is a smoother ride when Case is more direct with her
songwriting -- most of the time. "That Teenage Feeling" is perhaps the most
direct song here -- its lyrics, about holding out for that adrenaline rush
of love at first sight, are certainly clear enough -- but the sentiment is a
bit shaky. (It's laudable to forego dating for its own sake for a
relationship with some real excitement, but one can set one's
standards too high.) On the whole, lyrically and in its arrangement,
the song detracts from the album's lush, almost ethereal feel.
Other songs do a better job of bolstering that vibe, notably "Star Witness,"
the pretty "Hold On, Hold On" and an adventurous take on "John Saw That
Number," in which Case and her compatriots -- including Kelly Hogan, members
of the Sadies and Calexico and even the Band's Garth Hudson -- take the
traditional number for a whimsical spin.
After that engaging point, the second half ebbs more than it flows before
ultimately rebounding on its final track. There's no faulting the musical
proficiency of all involved, but it's hard to tell exactly what the intended
cumulative effect is supposed to be. Fox Confessor flits between
concept-album murkiness and ringing tableaus that flirt with the
alternative-country colors that informed, but never constrained, Furnace
In that sense, it's not unlike
last proper solo album, 2002's Blacklisted, which wasn't as sterling but
yielded some truly gorgeous moments, especially when Case moved away from
more traditional, country-esque conventions. And like Blacklisted, it
also benefits from Case's decision to pull back a bit on her prodigious lung
power; it's comforting that she's wise enough to know not to overplay her
In short, Fox Confessor is often striking, intermittently dazzling
and occasionally puzzling. It's uneven, as is usually the case with
ambitious works. But if it's not the masterpiece some reviewers have
claimed, it's definitely a few steps in the right direction. It's a
difficult album to embrace without reservation, but it's an easy work to
admire and appreciate over repeated listenings. You may never get that
teenage feeling and fall head-over-heels in love with it, but you'll still
want to stick around to drink in its sometimes beguiling beauty.
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