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Beguiling Beauty

 

Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

Anti-, 2006

Rating: 4.0

 

Posted: June 24, 2006

By 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 better ways.

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 Room Lullaby.

In that sense, it's not unlike her 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 trump card.

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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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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