Friday, April 16, 2010

Essential Listening: Neko Case

This is the first entry in what I aspire to be an ongoing 'column'. In "Essential Listening" I will choose an artist that I love and have listened to over the span of several albums and list 10-15 songs that I feel are their best. That way, if you ever wanted to give them a try but weren't sure where to start, now you'll know!

And who better to start off this new column than Neko Case? Truly one of modern music's most unique, challenging and recognizable voices, I will admit that when I was first made to listen to her, I hated her music. As Joel describes her, she is 'VERY folky', which works just fine for me now. If I had to describe her music, I'd call it alt-country-folk. Clearly, not exactly one for the masses.

But be open to her, and you are in for a treat. Her voice and her music combine to create the most incredible listening experience, which I say with no amount of hyperbole. Listening to her, especially when discovering her for the first time, really is an experience. I still get chills listening to her earlier material!

In any event, it's best to just listen to her, think about it, listen to her again, and fall deeply in love. She's not for everyone, but everyone should listen to her.

I've included the links to youtube so you can hear the song I'm talking about. I'm so thoughtful :)


1. Furnace Room Lullaby (from Furnace Room Lullaby- 2000)- The first song I'd recommend for any Neko virgin is this. One major reason for this is that you learn two important things: 1)her voice is RIDICULOUS. Gorgeous, full, haunting. I remember once hearing that her voice can be best likened to Patsy Cline's ghost. I support that! 2)Half of the time you are not going to have any idea what she's singing about. Neko Case writes songs for herself and her plays on words, lyrical choices, etc, will likely make no sense to anyone outside her brain. Just roll with it.

2. Porchlight (from Furnace Room Lullaby- 2000)- I love the lazy drum, the casual guitar, the rich twang in her voice. This one is very country-tastic, be warned. She wrote it about being on the road, but desperately wanting to be back home. Pulled by the memories of her porchlight (natch). Cotton in your ears.

3. John Saw That Number (from Fox Confessor Brings The Flood- 2006)- Nothing like a little southern Gospel to get the party started! Playful, bluesy, it'll make you want to sway and clap your hands.

4. Deep Red Bells (from Blacklisted- 2002)- Blacklisted is one of those albums that every time I think about it, I'm struck by how much I ADORE it. This song is it's best, and easily one of my all time faves by Neko. I don't so much know what she's singing about (apparently it's about a man who was murdering hookers in Vancouver. K?) But the imagery in this song is so evocative. When I talked about getting chills by her songs, this is what I was talking about. There may be no better lyric than "it tastes like being poor and small and popsicles in summer" in modern music. Dunno why. It's just stuck with me ever since I heard it. But her voice when she sings the words Deep Red Bells is what I think of when I think of her. *shivers*

5. Outro With Bees (from Blacklisted- 2002)- Melancholy and sweet, I imagine this song playing from a wind up music box. It's a mere 1:36 long, every second of it pretty. The album closer Outro With Bees (Reprise) is almost better, in that it's played like a hidden gem found on an old AM radio. I envision a 50's housewife sitting in her kitchen, swaying sadly by herself. Also, the way her voice bends when she sings the first 'no' in the line "there's no sure footing, no love I believe" is my single favourite sung syllable in all music-dom. It sounds dorky to even think that, but it's true.

6. Look For Me (I'll Be Around) (from Blacklisted 2002) Admittedly, this song wasn't written by Neko. It was written in the 50's, and you can still hear it. Her version is just so bleak and sorrowful. This is the kind of song they play in old Blues bars just before closing and everyone is nursing their final drinks. You will also notice something: you can actually suss out what she's singing about! The benefits of her covering someone else's work ;) It's a sad song about longing after a lost love and hoping that one day they will give up all the glitz and fakery of the life they thought was best for them and come back to simple, loyal Neko. Heart...breaks.

7. I Wish I Was The Moon (from Blacklisted- 2002)- Another one of those 'chills' songs. Just listening to it now makes me stop writing so I can just sit here and sway. This song probably holds the record for most times inexplicably stuck in my head when I wake up in the morning. Couldn't tell ya why. Just is! haha Her voice is so full of emotion in this one, I love it. Anger, sorrow, longing, hope. All in there.

8. Hold On, Hold On (from Fox Confessor Brings The Flood- 2006)- What always surprises me about this song is how...mainstream it sounds. That isn't meant to sound disparaging, really. It just has a very meticulous, produced kind of sound. Hmm, still sounds like I'm insulting it. I wouldn't include it in this list if I didn't think it's one of her best. I guess it's just more accessible to the casual listener than, say, Deep Red Bells or something like that. It's less alt-country and more plain ole fashioned country (but bluesy and Neko-fied)

9. That Teenage Feeling (from FCBTF- 2006)- Who ISN'T holding out for that teenage feeling when it comes to love? You know, the silly, irresponsible, all consuming love we used to feel when we were younger and 'knew better'? An ode to feeling young and dumb and always believing that love should feel like that.

10. Lady Pilot (from Blacklisted- 2002)- This always puts me in a jaunty mood. I like the drama of it. Guaranteed to get you strumming your air guitar. I always (secretly) think of my forward-thinking, assertive, bold female friends as Lady Pilots (not afraid to fly)!

11. Running Out Of Fools (from Blacklisted- 2002)- A nice fat "eff you" to that ex that seems to haunt you. Originally performed by Aretha Franklin in 1964, it had none of the menace or the resentment that Neko's version has. Listen to them side by side and you will praise Jeebus that Neko re-did it her own way. An absolute must-listen.

12. Ghost Writing (from Blacklisted- 2002)- A real standout in her earlier career, this one is definitely evocative of her alt-bleak-country vibe. Oh LORD, her voice here is amazing.

13. This Tornado Loves You (from Middle Cyclone- 2009)- Neko re-imagines herself as a destructive force of nature, tearing across land and blasting through trailer park in search of her love. Her use of imagery is brilliant, once again. I lovelovelove how guitar is used in this one. The fluttery strum that carries over the whole song is so different and unique. LOVE IT.

14. Middle Cyclone (from Middle Cyclone- 2009)- What is most surprising about this song is that for once she drops the impenetrable lyrics and fancy imagery (although not entirely, of course) in favour of being vulnerable and personal. This song is about her struggles with loving and being loved and I just adore it. It harkens back to Outro With Bees in that it's a simple, repeating melody that would be more suited to an old fashioned music box. Don't let that simplicity fool you though. Beneath it lies an achingly bleeding heart.

15. I'm An Animal (from Middle Cyclone- 2009)- We're nearing 'rock' territory here! This one always strikes me as a relic from the late 90's Canadian music scene. I could see The Tragically Hip having a song like this (although I would invariably hate it). I enjoy that she's doing something new here with her 'typical' sound. She isn't changing to find a new audience; she's just trying on some new shoes to go along with her cowboy boots!

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