Sunday, June 10, 2018

album review: 'hell-on' by neko case

I'm a little surprised in spite of myself that this is the first time I'm talking about a Neko Case solo record - I've talked about her with The New Pornographers and with case/lang/veirs, but Neko Case has had a distinctive and critically acclaimed presence outside of her other groups and side projects, and considering my fondness for sharp-as-hell songwriting married to vocals overflowing with charisma and production...

Well okay, this is where things get tricky, because when I took the time to revisit Neko Case's entire discography, I found myself naturally being drawn to the alternative country murder ballads that characterized her very early work like Blacklisted and Fox Confessor Brings The Flood - the jagged guitars working through interesting melodies with more ragged production, it just proved more distinctive and potent in comparison with her more refined and experimental but more mild work like her albums in 2009 and 2013. I'm not saying either record is bad - hell, you could make the argument that the writing and hooks were sharper than ever - but it couldn't help but feel like some of the greater edge had been tempered. What I was looking to hear was the return of some anger and firepower, or at the very least the production picking up some righteous fervor... and considering what I had heard surrounding Hell-On, we could be getting the best of both worlds, especially as she corralled a pretty impressive list of collaborators - spanning from perennial frustration of mine Mark Lanegan to her bandmates k.d. Lang and Laura Veirs, the latter who I covered on the Trailing Edge earlier this year. So hell yeah, I was looking forward to this kicking ass, especially with all the critical acclaim it's received, so how is Hell-On?

Okay, this review wound up being a lot harder to put together than I had expected, because Hell-On is a difficult record in more ways than one. It's absolutely a great record, but it's also one that defies the easier listening of Neko Case's previous albums - the song structures are more tangled, the production can feel more unruly, the lyrics trending towards territory that seems paradoxically more primal but more human each step of the way. And it's not an album that's really waiting for you to catch up or is going to make it easier on the audience either in compositions or lyrics - on the surface you might think it would, but with every listen I found myself further engrossed in what could be one of the best of 2018, or at the very least close to that category.

Now a big part of this is Neko Case herself - she's always had the sort of vocal timbre that conveys both breadth and depth, able to span melancholic heartbreak to strident, multi-tracked anthem territory on songs that I could swear are taking melodic cues from Jim Steinman... which of course is a compliment! Even before she decided to pull up k.d lang, Laura Veirs, and half the New Pornographers for backing vocals, she's a powerhouse who is smart enough to lean into bombast when she needs to... but at the same time she can handle reserved, aching ballads opposite Mark Lanegan and Eric Bachmann, in the latter case on a cover of one of his songs and doing it far better than when St. Vincent teamed up with Matt Berninger. If I were to criticize anything about the vocals it'd be that I'd look for a shade more rawness to come through - if there is an album calling out for a female scream in the vein of Mish Way or Lydia Loveless it is this one - but that's more a factor of a little too much reverb trying to make these mixes as vast as they are.

And hell, that pretty much steps into my biggest criticism of the album's production as a whole: a little too much reverb, a little lacking in truly snarled guitarwork to match the twisting compositions, if there was a record that could have actively used some grinding bite, it was this one. Part of this is a factor of producer Bjorn Yttling of Peter Bjorn & John, but you do get tracks like 'Bad Luck' and 'Dirty Diamond' that can feel a shade too placid and languid. Oh, they're catchy as all hell and have some burnished weight in the production thanks to that supple bass and deeper guitar groove, but this record does have some very minor issues with momentum and easing back on the intensity is not always the best choice. Because make no mistake, as I said this record is designed to unsettle your traditional listener, with the opening title track going through two considerable melodic and cadence shifts within the song before returning to the darker, minor key vibe. A comparison I've heard made is to Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, and thanks to the richer backing vocals and heavier swells I do hear it, but Neko Case is pulling on a different, slightly more mature emotional tapestry, where the balance of rich mid-80s synthesizers on 'Gumball Blue' make sense opposite the baritone sax on 'Halls Of Sarah', or the smoldering intensity in the guitars on 'Oracle Of The Maritimes', or how she kicks the melodies into faster gear on 'Winnie' and the excellent closing track 'Pitch Or Honey', both of which contain considerable melodic change-ups in their own right. And we do get some sizzle on the extended outro of 'Curse Of The I-5 Corridor' with a really damn solid low-key hook in its own right, and while I might wish there was a bit more of that jagged alt-country edge, Case can still convey that sense of danger and weight without leaning on that production - really, it'd just be gravy.

So fine, what is this album about? Well, let's go back to the word 'primal', because after a good dozen listens through this record, there's a strong sense that Neko Case is trying to encapsulate an emotional core that doesn't fit well with conventional language, and if sold with even a trace of detachment could ring as hollow. I would say it's reminiscent of a force of nature or a minor deity... only for Neko Case to draw the parallel herself on the opening track, and she's more than capable of selling it. But the truth is that a human embodying this presence had to come from somewhere, and Case is plenty self-aware about the experiences that shaped her to get to this point, and she leans into the environmentalist and feminist parallel. Look at 'Halls Of Sarah', where the parallel between a woman and the environment is reinforced - leaning heavily into the water metaphors because it's a natural fit all across this album, where artistic projection and exploitation is sketched in sharp parallel to how humanity uses the larger world, which is done again but with a twist on 'Dirty Diamond'. We'll come back to that specifically, but what's also very important to note is that Neko Case doesn't lose track of the humanity, both of her and the larger world and people around her, including the male figures. That's one reason why 'Curse Of The I-5 Corridor' hits so damn hard, as she meets a guy from her misbegotten past and contemplates what could have been... but it's not from a place of blame or accusation but wistful regret in how he might just be as much as an elemental force as she is, just of a different stripe, which is reinforced in devastating fashion on the cover of 'Sleep All Summer' - to quote, 'I would change for you, but babe, that doesn't mean I'm gonna be a better man'. But that past experience has shaped her, from those who would seek to elevate her naturalistic intensity on 'Oracle Of The Maritimes' to the traumatizing memories of 'My Uncle's Navy', and going back to 'Dirty Diamond', she's not unaware of how that may have tarnished her - the metaphorical usage of oil is excellent here, in showing how the refinement and decay of the past can be used for fueling the fires of now, for better but also possibly for worse. But from the self-aware acknowledgement that the world is inclined to commodify that wild experience on 'Last Lion Of Albion' to her genuine appreciation of an adopted family in the New Pornographers that has supported her passions, she then sketches the natural parallel to her art, the natural outgrowth of that emotion, and whether it would be perceived as pitch or honey... and the answer becomes 'who cares, the wildness suits you better, we just want to hear it', reflective of that symbiotic artist/audience relationship in some truly awesome positive reinforcement, a fantastic way to end the album.

And really, I could go on about some of the extended metaphorical connections and symbolism for days, from the fascinating usage of implied sexuality in a historical context on 'Oracle Of The Maritimes' to the Amazonian empowerment symbolism of 'Winnie' to the layers of dejected frustration on 'Bad Luck' - and really, part of that is because there are so many layers of this album to untangle, it's a dense listening experience. But it's so damn catchy and potent that it rarely feels as difficult as it should, which makes it a wonder in accessibility, even if I might nitpick to want more raw edges. But as it is... I can't help but feel this is a tour de force as a record: challenging without losing its infectiousness, a ton of personality, and the sort of writing that makes me want to put off this review longer so I have more excuses to listen to the album. So yeah, if you can't tell it's a light 9/10 and absolutely recommended - folks, this is an album that will take some work, but if there's one that'll be worth it in 2018, it's this - definitely check it out!

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