There’s a reason that Neko Case has become the darling of Chicago’s indie-country scene. She’s got this voice that’s huge, booming, and confident. I picture her singing her songs at a barn dance when suddenly the barn starts on fire. Everyone runs for the exits while smoke fills the room, but Neko plays on. Her voice, singing about forlorn love, dashed hopes, or sad girls, rises above the chaos. I think this burning voice of hers is what makes those of us “moderns” who love country-flavored music sit up and listen. Neko manages to infuse some of the familiar themes of country with her own unique serum that’s a mixture of Edgar Allen Poe and punk.
Case’s third album Blacklisted is her first that could truly be called a solo effort. She wrote all of the songs (with the exception of two well-chosen cover tunes) and plays many different instruments. Due to this factor, the album seems a little less tight than Neko’s last effort, “Furnace Room Lullaby.” However, this doesn’t mean it’s not a good listen. I’m finding the more I listen to it, the better I like it.
While a couple of the songs don’t seem fully developed, they all contain a good seed image that intrigues me. Plus, there’s a unique Neko style that makes all of her music sound as if it’s coming off the prairie. My friend Jim says it’s reverb, but I say it’s the wind fading and smoothing the hot coals of Neko’s voice.
The first song on the album throws you right into Neko’s gothic world. “Things That Scare Me” begins with the ominous image of “Blackbirds frying on a telephone wire.” These are the same birds that followed her when she was a child. She asks, “Were they trying to tell me something?”
The next song, “Deep Red Bells,” contains echoes of red bells ringing “like thunder” while your soul floats like an “old paper bag past empty lots and early graves.” These are the images that make Neko’s music so distinctive and downright strange. Yet somehow, the country influence makes it poignant and moving. I would venture to say that Neko’s got a bit of the murder ballad in her (she did recently open for Nick Cave).
But for as much as she can write a good murder ballad, she can write a great sad ballad — in her own way, of course. In “Outro With Bees” she sweetly sings, “It’s better my sweet/That we hover like bees because there’s no sure footing/No love I believe.” I love that image of people hovering just like bees, uncertain where to land, never quite connecting. In “Pretty Girls,” she urges “Pretty girls you’re too good for this/I break my heart on this quitting mood/Don’t let them tell you you’re nothing.” The guitar in this song is mute in the background, but twangs away, solidly echoing Neko’s plea for self-respect.
As a side note, Neko’s choice of cover tunes for this album is stellar. She manages to make these songs distinctly her own while maintaining their true spirit. She sings the moody “Look For Me (I’ll be Around)” with a low, almost jazz singer tone. The song reeks of the desperation of a woman who’s ready to give up anything and everything, if he’ll just come around again. It’s a true country theme if there ever was one (at least among the great female singers).
Toward the end of the album, Neko sings the rollicking “Runnin’ Out Of Fools.” This song gives her the chance to really use her voice in all its wailing glory. She belts out “Have yourself a dime for the talkin’/Then I’m gonna hang up right on you/Because this time you’re not getting through to me/Guess you must be runnin’ out of fools/Even fools like me.” Another great country theme, that of the spurned woman.
Blacklisted is a great album for a listener who’s looking for something unique. It combines elements of country, goth, and punk to make a twangy mix that fires up and fades away. I’d strongly recommend this album to women especially because Neko has this strong way about her that’s completely infectious. Overall though, everyone can enjoy her amazing voice and excellent music.
Written by Ruth Williams.