June 1, 2018 Neko Case – Hell-On (Album Review)
Neko Case continues her roll through the musical landscape with Hell-On, her first solo album in five years, due for release Friday, June 1, 2018 through Anti- Records. This gap would mark the longest between solo works for the American born Singer-Songwriter, but the intervening time was been anything but down. In addition to various tours, she recorded two albums – 2014’s Brill Bruisers and 2017’s Whiteout Conditions – with her main band, The New Pornographers, as well as a collaboration with k. d. lang and Laura Veirs, released simply as 2016’s case/lang/veirs. (Both lang and Veirs return here on Hell-On, though not on overlapping tracks.)
Neko Case may be on record saying, “I don’t have a pretty voice or a trained voice,” but terse rebuttals aside, what Neko does have is much more valuable: a unique voice, both in terms of its distinct reverberations and, more importantly, the dense words which emerge. Within the opener, which doubles as the title track, Case opines about the earth beneath us: “My voice is not the liquid waves / the perfect rings ’round a heron’s legs / my voice is straight garroting wire / a stolen mile of fingerprints / peeled the quiet from the dunes / captured and re-spooled as ruin to be used / at a different time.“
Veirs makes her lone guest appearance backing “Halls of Sarah,” joined by frequent Case contributors Kelly Hogan and Rachel Flotard. The languid beginning breaks into a raucous chorus that makes effective use of all available voices. The track is preceded by “Last Lion Of Albion,” which uses the subtle tones of k. d. lang alone to offset the high reaches of Case as the pair spin a tale of woe, likely in regards to the eventual descent of the British Empire.
Later, in “Bad Luck,” the lyrics ask us, “Are you tired of things going right? / things going wrong?” It is almost as if the randomness of luck and chance remove the ability to mourn, but also the ability to find glee. Feeling down? Wait a few minutes. Though the track stands strongly on its own, the situational irony of this track is that just before it was put to tape within a European recording studio, Case had received word that her house in rural New England had burned to the ground, taking a large collection of art, instruments, and other personal items with it (her pets were unscathed).
The lyrics had already been penned, but the song, with its almost gleeful vibe, went on. Background support is supplied again by Hogan, plus Nora O’Connor and Robert Forster. Case later doubles down on the overlap between life and art within a teaser video for the song, where her hair is covered in cigarettes, laughing, framed within the outline of a burning house. (This scene is also featured on the album cover.) What else is there to do but laugh?
Mark Lanegan guests on “Curse of the I-5,” a tale that describes the gradual descent of a relationship that began on rocky terms along the western U.S. interstate of the same name. Lanegan provides harmonies in between Case taking off on her own. It is perhaps a in-joke that Lanegan is the chosen guest here, as he hails from Washington, home to the northern terminus of the titular interstate. While he never does take the floor alone to make this a true duet, his scratchy distinct baritone adds plenty of flavor, of a lover neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the points being made by Case.
This is somewhat in contrast to “Sleep All Summer,” which includes lead vocals from Eric Bachmann, known for his work with Archers of Loaf. His voice combines with Case without much simpatico; the two sound almost at odds, despite the lyrical content being more hopeful than “Curse.”
A full cadre of help appears on “Gumball Blue,” with lang, Hogan, Flotard, and O’Connor joined by Carl Newman, Kathryn Calder, and Joe Seiders; the dense chorus traipses along the strutting tempo of plucked guitar and airy horns. “My Uncle’s Navy” adds a smattering of Cure-esque guitar effects as Case takes the microphone for one of the handful of solo numbers on the record, joining “Dirty Diamond” and “Oracle of fhe Maritime.”
The album closes with the looping, dreamy bassline of “Pitch or Honey,” coupled with some robotic computations and more background vocals from Hogan and O’Connor. A break of acoustic guitar tames the monotony and adds a sliver of optimism, as do Hogan and O’Connor.
A strong, well-chosen supporting cast peppers the usual expert songwriting a listener would expect from Neko Case. Hell-On offers strong acoustics, electronics, and Country romps, and on every track, the voice of Case, trained or not, is more than capable of spinning a complicated web while also whispering sweet nothings to the listener. Headphones may be required here, as the nuance of voice and instrument are soft but effective. For these reasons, CrypticRock is happy to award Hell-On 4 out of 5 stars.