Neko Case’s voice is an earthy, bluesy alto with broad range, tinged with a southern accent long fed through a Northwestern upbringing. It’s one of the greatest voices in modern music, adept at so many genres that she can make your head spin. When I hear her on those great New Pornographer albums like Mass Romantic and Electric Version, I feel all warm and tingly. Then I go to her solo work, and I’m blown away by the sheer expressiveness of that voice. It’s wholly unique, you can’t mistaken Neko for anyone else.
Blacklisted is an astonishing song cycle, a masterclass in songwriting and atmosphere that should be taught to all upcoming songwriters. If all Neko did afterwards was retreat into the alt country landscape to cover Woody Guthrie songs, her legacy would be secure. Fortunately, it’s only the third step in a career that is both varied and comforting. I adore Neko Case. Adore.
Let’s begin with the atmosphere evoked by this album- the minor key melodies that seem to declare the apocalypse. It feels dark and heavy, with swirling Wurlitzers and imposing pedal steel. Aided by members of Calexico, the Sadies (CanCon alert!), and Giant Sand, as well as vocal assists from Mary Margaret O’Hara (CanCon alert!), the album just drips with jazz influenced brooding that teams up well with the dusty chords of Appalachia. Musically it’s a gorgeous record, both innovative and reverential. Amidst it all is exquisite playing by her band of friends, with props to Dallas Good for bringing his brilliant guitar styles to this brilliant piece of art.
Songs like “Things That Scare Me” and “Blacklisted” gallop along, driving home melody under Neko’s silvery vocals. Her cover of Aretha’s “Runnin’ Out Of Fools” doesn’t change much about the song yet feels completely different- it’s amazing what the tone of someone’s voice can do to affect the song being sung. Neko’s brilliant voice screams and shouts like Aretha, but it’s country blues tone adds a layer Aretha’s soul gospel shout lacked. The little hiccups and sudden death drops are just gorgeous.
My favourite song, though, is the rich and creepy “Deep Red Bells”. Neko Case, though Virginian born, was Tacoma bred. Those of you not obsessed with the history of American crime may not remember much about the Green River Killer, but Neko does, and the song touches on the aspects of the events. The imagery she uses is vivid- “It looks a lot like engine oil and tastes like being poor and small and Popsicles in summer” she sings in the first verse, a line that sticks in my mind like the Cars Cost Less in Wetaskiwin jingle ( also a fave- “Does your soul cast about like an old paper bag Past empty lots and early graves?”. Oh, and “When speckled fronds raise round your bones Who took the time to fold your clothes and shook the valley of the shadow.” Love that line). To hell with it, all of “Deep Red Bells” is genius.
Songs about serial killers tend to be dreary affairs, and the downbeat melody should make the song a slice of miserablist agony. But there is a lightness in Neko’s voice, a sweetness that turns fierce toward the last verse. It’s a vocal tour de force by a brilliant singer and interpreter, quite possibly one of the finest recorded performances in the new millennia. “Deep Red Bells” is one of my favourite songs of all time.
The rest of the album, from the bitter “Pretty Girls” to the more spirited waltz of “I Wish I Was The Moon”, is almost equal to the rich “Deep Red Bells”. The album is dark, and Neko would continue to flirt with the darkness after this extraordinary album. Yes, one can claim to miss her Scott Walker covers. Neko is never one to shy away from being a bold writer. She needs to be to match that ridiculously heavenly voice of hers.
Neko Case’s voice can be used in the argument that there is a God. It’s certainly a compelling one. A voice like that just doesn’t exist in a vacuum.