Neko Case is such a good singer that I sometimes wish she didn’t bother with the songwriting. As an interpreter, she’s almost as good as anyone going. Listen to the Everly Brothers’ “Bowling Green” on her first album, The Virginian. Or Hank Williams’ “Alone And Forsaken” on her EP Canadian Amp. Or her rollicking version of the Shangri-Las’ “Train From Kansas City” on last year’s excellent live album The Tigers Have Spoken. She has a big voice, bright but edged with melancholy, and she has terrific confidence in its swoops and plunges. She’s equally convincing on country weepers, barroom stompers, gospel rave-ups, torchy ballads and (as a member of the New Pornographers) brassy power-pop.
She is also an intermittently fine songwriter. Her albums to date have been littered with gems written by herself or with collaborators — “High On Cruel”, “The Virginian”, “Furnace Room Lullaby”, “Thrice All American”, “Deep Red Bells”. But intermittent and littered are the key words there. Although even her lesser songs sound pretty good, there’s a fair number of them. Melodic vagueness and a tendency to elevate atmosphere over songcraft have plagued her records.
Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is not a dramatic break from that pattern, but it does move in some encouraging directions. Song for song, it is Case’s most stylistically distinctive album, and maybe her strongest. Having proven her honky-tonk bona fides, she doesn’t sound compelled to put twangs where they don’t belong, and a lot of the tracks would be hard-pressed to qualify as country, alt- or otherwise. Like her friend Kelly Hogan (who supplies backing vocals on much of Fox Confessor), Case draws as much on girl-group and chanteuse traditions as anything specific to Nashville. The sound here is a kind of lush noir-pop.
The first track, “Margaret Vs. Pauline”, sets the tone with echoing guitars and cascading, jazzy piano (courtesy of Garth Hudson, who plays on four songs). The next, “Star Witness”, adds a diaphanous string section. Case’s frequent collaborators the Sadies also play on about half the record, providing the same punch they did on The Tigers Have Spoken.
She has somewhat reined in her femme-fatale fixations, but there are still plenty of dark undercurrents. The spare, spooky “A Widow’s Toast” would be at home on a David Lynch soundtrack, and Case’s flair for the gothic shows up in lyrics with recurring blood imagery alongside knives, wolves, specters, devils and death.
But some of the most memorable songs on Fox Confessor are less draped in black crepe. “That Teenage Feeling” is an ode to innocence from the perspective of jaded experience: “All the loves we had, all we ever knew,” Case asks, “Did they fill me with so many secrets that keep me from loving you?” The album’s final song, “The Needle Has Landed”, is a lost-love lament with an urgent, plaintive chorus. Its metaphors are mysterious, as Case tends to be, but its regrets are achingly clear, and there’s nothing hidden about the longing in its last line: “If I knew then what’s so obvious now, you’d still be here, baby.”
For at least three-quarters of the album, Case joins her words and voice to rich, surprising melodies that owe something to Owen Bradley-era country and something to Brill Building pop, without ever disclosing their influences too obviously. “Star Witness”, “Hold On, Hold On” and “The Needle Has Landed” rank easily among the prettiest songs she has written. She stumbles only in a stretch toward the end, with a few meandering tracks that never quite settle on a tune.
And just as she tore through “This Little Light” on The Tigers Have Spoken, she and Hogan give a dynamite reading of the traditional “John Saw That Number” that makes me wish for an entire gospel album. But that’s a record for another day. For now, this one will do fine.