Flame-haired alt-country chanteuse Neko Case is quite possibly the most versatile vocalist on the scene: she is an exhilarating power-pop balladeer, a smoldering lounge singer, a credible gospel soloist, and an expert interpreter of country-western standards.
On her newly released album, “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood,” Case’s versatility is showcased over the course of twelve stellar tracks that run the gamut of musical genres. This diverse array of songs is unified by Case’s uncannily expressive vocals and the crack musicianship of her collaborators from fellow alt-Americana acts Calexico, The Sadies, and former member of The Band Garth Hudson.
Fans who know Case exclusively through her work with the Canadian power-pop outfit The New Pornographers will be surprised by this album’s grittier, more soulful aesthetic. Country-fried “Confessor” tracks like “Star Witness” and “Hold On, Hold On” inhabit a different sonic universe than indie-tastic Pornographers rave-ups like “Letter From an Occupant” and “The Laws Have Changed.”
This is not to say that fans of Case’s Pornographers work will not enjoy her new record—if anything her devotees will relish the opportunity to hear her “authentic” musical voice freed from the constraints of band politics and shared songwriting credits.
No track on “Fox Confessor” is more representative of Case’s solo aesthetic than the album’s penultimate song “At Last.” The title is an allusion to the Ella Fitzgerald torch song of the same name, but Case does not cover it so much as pay it homage. Her vocals channel Fitzgerald’s composed intensity, but her lyrics forsake the saccharine literalism of the original for Dylanesque poetic abstraction. She sings: “And if death should smell my freedom as is passes beneath my window / let it leave me trembling at every bell that tolls me.” The track’s simultaneous allusion to and improvement upon tradition is characteristic of Case’s style.
“Fox Confessor” also features Case’s interpretation of the folk-hymn “John Saw That Number”, a rousing tribute to John the Baptist. Her version of the song is commensurate to its subject: her recording has all the fervor of a Pentecostal choir on Sunday morning. Case’s band keeps things safe but melodically interesting with jangly pianos, lively drums, and bluesy guitars. Case delivers a passionate vocal performance and doubles her own voice to give the impression of a backing chorus—the result is mesmerizing.
Heady tracks like “John Saw That Number” highlight the album’s single flaw: it cannot sustain the momentum of its best songs for the duration of the album. Notably, the songs that intervene between “John” and “At Last”—while perfectly listenable—are not nearly as engaging as what comes before and after. The album would be nearly perfect were it ten rather than twelve songs long.
But that’s a minor criticism of an album that, by any measure, offers listeners an embarrassment of riches. Case has truly come into her own as an artist on “Fox Confessor”; no matter how many hats she wears, her unique genius shines through.
—Staff writer Bernard L. Parham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.