I firmly believe that Neko Case, formerly of the Canadian-based New Pornographers, will one day make one of the great recordings of our time. I also firmly believe that mainstream consumers are likely to pass over that future album, just as they have passed over her two past alt-country gems The Virginian (1997) and Furnace Room Lullaby (2000).
Now that my bias is out in the open, I think it is safe to say that Ms. Case’s latest album, Blacklisted, though a giant step in the right direction, is not the album I have been waiting for. It is, however, one hell of a holdover.
Case has traded in her old roster of cohorts, “the Boyfriends” (which consisted of members of the Softies, Zumpano and Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet), for a new crop of talented backing musicians. This time around, she has even taken up the tenor guitar on most of the tracks and finds time to try her hand at piano, drums and percussion as well. Although Case’s own instrumental limits are evident throughout the album, she is wise enough to stick to backing rhythms while the likes of Joey Burns (Giant Sand, Calexico) and fellow Bloodshot label-mate Dallas Good (The Sadies) take the more visible guitar parts, more than making up for Case’s inexperience. The results are remarkable.
Blacklisted’s eerie musical atmosphere-with its slowly ambling upright base, mournful cello and tremolo echoing electric guitar-smacks of Angelo Badalamenti’s Fire Walk With Me. But, most importantly, it lays down an appropriate backdrop for Blacklisted’s main attraction-Case’s haunting vocals. Evocative of Patsy Cline, the ostensible measuring stick for all great female county vocalists, Case’s voice is powerfully ethereal, able to balance both tremendous strength and painful vulnerability. This balance is perfectly suited to Case’s favorite topics-yearning, deception, obsession and loss.
The album, absorbing all the way through, hits its high point early on with its magnificent second track, “Deep Red Bells,” on which Case broods, “Where does this mean world cast it’s cold eye? /Who’s left to suffer long about you? /Does your soul cast about like an old paper bag /past empty lots and early graves?” Among the other original successes of the album are the plaintive sexiness of “Tightly” and the forlorn “I Wish I Was the Moon.”
Her new songs are evidence of the growth of her lyrical prowess beyond her already formidable songwriting. But Case also tackles two covers on Blacklisted. Her rendition of Ketty Lester’s “Look For Me (I’ll Be Around),” a song about stalking an unrequited love, is both beautiful and just plain scary. And she anted up when she decided to take the perilous risk of covering Aretha Franklin’s hit “Runnin’ Out of Fools,” certainly a ballsy move. But in an undertaking that should, by all faculty of reason, prove disastrous, Case delivers her coup de grace one song too early. She not only nails the vocals but also makes the tune her own.
Suffering only from its brevity and perhaps from a hint of immaturity, Blacklisted delivers a compelling experience from a promising songstress. It is country the way country should be. Mr. Cash, if you’re listening, there’s still hope.