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Blacklisted

It’s about time I finally talked about my first Neko Case album: Blacklisted! This was also Neko’s first full-length solo album. Of course, she’d been recording albums before that (with Her Boyfriends) and a was a part of a couple of other bands even before that (Cub and Maow). But Blacklisted was her first album credited just to herself.

I guess there’s a rumor that the album’s title came from the fact that she was banned for life from performing at the Grand Ole Opry after she took her shirt off on stage during a performance. It wasn’t an act of rebellion though – she was suffering from heatstroke. But what a story, huh?

Neko_Case_-_Blacklisted

Blacklisted was the album that sparked my love for Neko Case. You could even say it came from the moment I heard the opening track “Things That Scare Me.” I knew I was in for the long haul with this one. I’ve seen this album described as “country noir” and I think that aesthetic comes across most clearly on this track. I picture dusty desert ghost town, empty roads, and desperadoes. It’s easily my favorite track off this album.

I was still in love when I heard the next track “Deep Red Bells,” which was written about the Green River Murders. Neko was a teenager at the time the murders took place, and I remember reading somewhere that she used to take a knife to school to protect herself. Many of the victims were allegedly prostitutes, but that didn’t make a difference to a young Neko. It didn’t make a difference to a grown up Neko either. This song humanizes these women and wonders who they were and who they left behind.

The love doesn’t stop with “Outro With Bees.” This song is so weary and lazy and plaintive. It’s like a heartbreak on a hot summer day. My only complaint is that it’s too short! I couldn’t tell you how she could have made it longer though. Much like the relationship described in this song, it’s supposed to be fleeting.

“Lady Pilot” immediately conjures up images of Amelia Earhart for me: “We’ve got a lady pilot/She’s not afraid to die.” The imagery described in the song is great too: “Boulder City looks like coals in the fire.” It’s a fantastic ode to lady pilots everywhere. (By the way, I LOVE the guitar in this song.)

“Tightly”…oh, dear. “Tightly.” This is my least favorite song on this album – and my least favorite Neko Case song! It’s unfortunate. I just usually skip it. I don’t know, it’s just so plain-sounding and not very impressive. Who knows though? I say that now and then maybe one day I’ll have a change of heart.

“Look for Me (I’ll Be Around)” is a one of two cover songs, this one having been performed by Sarah Vaughan. It’s a haunting and alluring song – Neko sings it perfectly. The instruments in this are pretty quiet and minimal, which works great here. It sounds like it could be sung in a seedy bar at 2 in the morning.

“Stinging Velvet” is one of my other favorite tracks off this album. I really like the guitars here too! There are some fantastic lyrics in this track: “Water through my lashes/Look just like Christmas lights” and “Cold and shivering warm” are the stand outs for me.

Subject matter-wise, “Pretty Girls” is the heaviest song on this album. Simply put, it’s about girls at an abortion clinic. But like “Deep Red Bells” it’s incredibly sympathetic – so it goes without saying that it’s also pro-choice. My favorite lines, maybe because they ring so true, are “Wind your flimsy blue gowns tight around you/Around curves so comely and sinister/They blame it on you, pretty girls.”

“I Missed the Point” doesn’t impress me much. Neko’s voice sounds great at least. I much prefer the track that follows. That would be the title track “Blacklisted”! It’s some more of that country-noir. It makes me think of a ghost train in the middle of the night. Neko’s voice is so powerful here as she considers it.

And then we have “I Wish I Was the Moon.” Ohhh, my heart. I think I mentioned before that I never really cared for this song until I heard it in concert. I don’t know how or why that changed things, but now it’s one of my favorites. I love how quiet it starts and how it flares up slowly and then drops out again suddenly so that we can appreciate the last few notes of the song. It’s so emotionally heavy, I can’t help but feel my heart sink.

Next up we have another cover, “Runnin’ Out of Fools” as previously sung by Aretha Franklin, though I don’t remember hearing my parents play this one growing up. Anyway, Neko sings it great! She really knows how to belt out a note without having it overwhelm the song.

“Ghost Writing” – more country noir! You know, this one reminds me a lot of Sheryl Crow’s “The Book,” a seriously underrated song off her album of the same name. It’s not just the writing themes in the songs’ titles. They’re both very dark and spooky and bitter-sounding tracks. And just overall they sound very similar. Anyway, it’s a fantastic track and it stays with you after it ends. (Well, both of them do!)

Finally, we end with “Outro With Bees (Reprise)” which is the perfect track to come after “Ghost Writing” since it starts out with some unnerving radio static going in and out with various bits of tense dialogue and music. This goes on for almost half a minute, and then we get the reprise of that sad little song before it fades back out into white radio noise and fragments of music and commercials. Great, great, great final track.

Of her solo albums, Blacklisted is the most country of them all. If you want to cut your teeth on this genre but you’re unsure (next to rap, country tends to be the genre most people say they don’t like), then ease into it with some Neko Case and Blacklisted! It goes down easy and is a real treat for the ears. And to bring it back to Sheryl Crow, if you enjoy her early music, then I’m positive you’ll like Neko Case. So give it a go!

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Music Memoirs: The Tigers Have Spoken

New feature! I’m calling it Music Memoirs. Like a lot of people, every once in awhile, a song will make me think of some random event in my life. Maybe the song was playing at the time or maybe it just reminds me of that event because of the lyrics. I kind of did this before, although I didn’t know I was doing it at the time, when I talked about “Poke and Destroy.” So this isn’t just going to be “Oh! This is the song that was playing during my first kiss!” I’ll keep this feature more interesting than that.

So let’s get into it! Today’s Music Memoir involves the song “The Tigers Have Spoken” by Neko Case, from her live album of the same name. It’s a great song, very Neko in its nature/animal themes, but a very sad one too. It’s self-explanatory from the first verse: “They shot the tiger on his chain.” Its a true story – not necessarily in that Neko read about one particular incident in the paper and then wrote this song, but in that this is something that happens on occasion. People keep exotic animals illegally, even big dangerous ones like tigers, and when things go wrong, the animal is killed.

I know this because it happened right around my home town. Ten years ago, a tiger escaped from an illegally operated animal sanctuary in a town called Moorpark, about an hour northwest of Los Angeles. I wasn’t living in Moorpark, but I was going to school there. I was a freshman at the time, and I was only in my second semester when I heard about this escaped tiger. It was all over the news. I don’t remember being particularly worried since the sightings were all in the hills around horse ranches, parks, houses at the edge of town, etc. My house wasn’t anywhere near the sightings and the school was in a busy area. It was backed up against the hills as well, technically, but I figured a tiger would have no interest in wandering around a giant paved area, i.e. the parking lots that surrounded the school. Still, others remained on alert. Years later, I would learn from a friend who was living in Moorpark at the time that she was extra vigilant because she owned a dog.

The tiger kept the entire town on edge for weeks until one day it showed up in someone’s backyard and they called the authorities. I guess it wound up wandering too close to a school (I remember it being in the morning) and they figured it posed a threat, so they shot it dead. It was incredibly disappointing to learn that that was how it ended.

All the other animals in the sanctuary were transferred to other sites and the couple who had owned them were arrested and charged. The whole affair ended up being a lot more dramatic than I knew (or at least remembered) at the time. It wasn’t just an escaped tiger – it was spooked horses running onto the road, one of them being hit by a car and causing a human fatality. It was a wife who allegedly attempted to shoot her husband during a domestic dispute (they owned the tiger). And it wasn’t just one tiger, but two more, as well as three lions, a snow leopard, a lynx, a bobcat, and more running free around the property rather than in enclosures. It was probably one of the most dramatic events to ever happen in that sleepy little town.

And now I think of it every time I hear this song.*

*(Includes a funny story by Neko at the beginning before it punches you in the gut with sadness! Wahoo! You’ll probably turn your volume up during the speaking part, but right after she laughs and says “But we’ll still play it for you,” you’ll want to turn it down again because the song is a little louder by contrast.)

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Revisited: The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

You’d think being a music blog, I’d make this post about the Grammys, but I didn’t watch the Grammys and I don’t listen to a lot of music that gets nominated for Grammys, so here we are! (Just in case anyone thought I was trying to be professional or that I knew what I was talking about.)

Instead, I’d like to revisit an album I reviewed way back when I started this blog (I’ll probably make “Revisited” a recurring feature, like Music Tidbits or Music That Made Me). Actually, this goes back to my very second post on this blog! This week, I’d like to revisit Neko Case’s “The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You”!

I feel like when I wrote that post, I wasn’t yet fully invested in the album. I read it again and I realize I really breezed over it. I’m terrible when it comes to giving my opinion about a thing immediately after watching/listening to/consuming it. I’m the worst person you could invite to a focus group. I need time to digest things, to really mull them over and think about what I did or didn’t like, and why. This is especially the case with music. I really, REALLY need the time to listen to the album as a whole – repeatedly – and then dissect it track by track. I need to get tired of it, put it away, then come back to it.

So now that it’s been well over a year since this album was released and I got my grubby little paws on it, I’ve DEFINITELY formed a better opinion about it! Well, it’s still not my favorite Neko Case album, BUT I do enjoy it a lot more than I initially did.

So let’s start at the beginning. (Where else?) “Wild Creatures” is a little underwhelming as an intro track. It didn’t have the same oomph for me that the opening tracks from her previous three studio albums did. I DO like these lyrics though:

“Hey, little girl, would you like to be
The king’s pet or the king?”
“I’d choose odorless and invisible,
But otherwise I would choose the king.”

There’s something about choosing to be “odorless and invisible” that I can relate to in my worst moments.

“Night Still Comes” is one of my favorites from this album. No clue what it’s about, but it kind of speaks to me as being about being fiercely independent and misunderstood for it, but then deciding you know what? I don’t need anyone to understand me. Umm, but really I have no idea. I still really like the line “But I’ve revenged myself all over myself/There’s nothing you can do to me.”

“Man” is still also my favorite! Oh my gosh, I LOVE this song. Neko is obviously playing around with gender roles and expectations here. It took me awhile to understand that. Like, it seems there’s this common theme that girls are either taught to be proper and ladylike (read: submissive, passive, seen but not heard, etc) OR they’re taught that to be feminine is to be weak, pathetic, and stupid. Neko (in this song) is playing with that latter theme here. She’s been raised to be a “man” – tough, bold, brave, strong – BUT she refuses to see women as the opposite. I mean, just take the line “A woman’s heart is the watermark/By which I measure everything” – and she really draws out that “everything” when she sings it. And then, of course, she sings at the end “‘Cause you didn’t know what a man was/Until I showed you.” It’s just fantastic.

I barely mentioned “I’m From Nowhere” last time, except for a few lyrics. I mean, what? This song is GREAT. It’s quiet – Just Neko and a guitar. It’s all about identity being tied to where you’re from. Neko’s father was a Vietnam War vet, and her parents divorced when she was young, so she moved around a lot growing up. I did too (but not NEARLY across as many states) so I can relate a little bit. So, she’s from “Nowhere” and that suits her just fine.

And how in the world could I skip “Bracing For Sunday”?? “I’m a Friday night girl/Bracing for Sunday to come.” These are just…FANTASTIC lyrics. Friday, the day everyone goes out and gets wild, and Sunday, the day everyone atones for it. I just really like the way she sings it, like she’s not afraid of it. She’s ready for it. This song is so charged and restless.

“Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” is still a wonderful, beautifully sad track. And I still really want to know where this one came from – but I also feel like it’s none of my business because it might be personal. Which makes it all the more fascinating and touching.

“Calling Cards” might be the only straightforward love song on here. Which makes it kind of an interesting track considering the rest of the album is so introspective, even when it seems to involve other people. I mean, this is pretty much the theme song to a long distance relationship. It’s sweet.

“City Swan” – another one that hardly got a mention! But it’s so good! It goes back to the theme of wanderlust that “I’m From Nowhere” flirts with. Sure, there are places that could be called hometowns. But when you’ve spent so much time away from them, going back to them makes you feel like an alien – completely out of your element. To be a city swan is to be someone who was transformed from a small town duckling. You’re unable to reconnect. And this part in particular just really hits me: “And it breaks my heart just like the day/That I looked down and I realized/I’d been sailing so long I’d become the shore.” Wow.

“Afraid” … Um. I don’t care for this one too much? Neko didn’t write it (but Nico did!), so I dunno. I do like the line “You are beautiful and you are alone” though.

“Local Girl” – This one is pretty nice, but for the longest time I thought she was singing “All of you lie about Sunday/You’re on a first name basis” – which made sense to me – but it’s actually “All of you lie about someday.” Which doesn’t make as much sense to me? I was listening to some old episodes of some podcasts I don’t normally listen to because they had interviews with Neko Case back from September 2013, when she released this album. Anyway, she was saying that this song is about how people talk about love all the time when they don’t know anything about it. It still doesn’t make much sense to me. But I still like it!

“Where Did I Leave That Fire?” is a really eerie one. Not just because of the dark, haunting, submarine sounds, but because it’s kind of got a little bit existential horror going on, at least for an artist. If you listen to it from the perspective of an artist, you’ll get what the “fire” is. And something about the way she sings “I wanted so badly not to be me” hits heavy.

“Ragtime” is another favorite of mine! This one really, really gets to me too. I talked about this one before (#5 on my list!). It’s very much like a phoenix rising from the flames. Just listen to the lyrics: “I’ll reveal myself when I’m ready,/I’ll reveal myself invincible soon.” I also just really like the lines “I am one and the same/I am useful and strange.” It’s so soothing, for how cacophonous it is at the end. It’s just feels like letting go.

“Madonna of the Wasps” – Another song not written by Neko! (It was written by Robyn Hitchcock. Just because I wrote that sentence, doesn’t mean I know who that is.) It’s so hippie-dippie. I kind of like it, but I also have to be in the mood for it, because it’s kind of uncharacteristic for Neko. It’s not really her style!

And OH MY GOSH, how did I NOT mention the version of “Magpie to the Morning” on this album, because it is one of my FAVORITE songs and I LOVE this version of it. See how disappointed I am in you, me from over a year ago? Well, I guess there were some things in my life that happened that changed that since then. This song just means to much to me, and I am so in love with the way it’s performed here. I could go on forever about it.

“Yon Ferrets Return” – Haha, I still like this one a lot! It’s just so much fun! There’s that wanderlust theme again. It just sweeps you right up! I want to jump on that covered wagon it makes me picture and ride off into the sunset. I know, I’m weird.

So that’s about it! What a much better review for an album that’s much better than I treated it over a year ago. Forgive me, Neko! And forgive me, readers. You both deserved better, so I hope I gave it this time!

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Neko Case

I’m going to see Neko Case on Thursday, you guys, and I’m so excited! I’ve been going over in my head which songs she’ll probably perform and which ones I hope she’ll perform. So here are my predictions, keeping in mind I’ve never seen her in concert before, so I don’t know what kind of songs she favors performing live.

It’ll be a lot of The Harder I Fight, of course. I think “Man” is guaranteed, which is good because I’m betting it sounds awesome live. It certainly sounds like it was meant to be performed live. I think we’ll probably get “Night Still Comes” which I actually really want to hear. The likelihood is fairly high — they’ve been playing it in the theaters at my local AMC before they start the pre-movie stuff (not the previews, but the commercials. If you’ve been to an AMC, you’ll know what I’m talking about).

“Bracing for Sunday,” “City Swan,” and “Local Girl” are likely. I wouldn’t mind hearing “Calling Cards.” I’m hopeful for “Ragtime” because I really like it as an album closer, though I don’t think it’ll be a concert closer. (That might just be “Man.”) And I really, really LOVE the dressed-down version of “Magpie to the Morning” on the deluxe version of The Harder I Fight. I’m really hoping she plays this version because I really like the way it sounds with the banjo and the guitar.

Moving chronologically backwards to Middle Cyclone, I would be THRILLED if she played “This Tornado Loves You.” It’s my favorite song off of that album, and one of my top five favorite Neko Case songs of all time.

I’d like to hear “The Pharaohs” but I don’t think it’s likely. However, “People Got A Lotta Nerve” is very likely. Possibly “Red Tide” and “Prison Girls” too.

Moving on to Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, I would absolutely LOVE to hear “Margaret Vs. Pauline” (another top 5 favorite) If she played that and “This Tornado Loves You” that would be wonderful. I’d like to hear “Hold On, Hold On,” and I think the odds of that are pretty good. “Lion’s Jaws” would be nice, but maybe not likely. I’d like “Maybe Sparrow” too, and I think that’s more likely. Other than that, I think the title track “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” might be played, maybe.

Next up is my favorite (and first) Neko Case album, Blacklisted. If she played “Things That Scare Me”…Oh my goodness, if she played that one along with “Margaret Vs. Pauline” and “This Tornado Loves You” I think THAT might my perfect Neko concert. She can play anything else. I would just love love LOVE to hear “Things That Scare Me.” It was love at first listen for me. Instant favorite. I knew I was in for the long haul with Neko when I heard that song. Can’t say the likelihood of that one though…

Other than that one, “Deep Red Bells” just might be played — and that’s okay because I really like it! I love “Outro With Bees” but I’m not holding my breath. “Lady Pilot” is a maybe! “Stinging Velvet” would be lovely, and possible. Overall, the odds for anything on this album are pretty low. I’m guessing she’ll play very, very few songs from this album, if any.

If she plays anything else, it’ll be a puzzle to me! I don’t have any of the albums she made with Her Boyfriends, though I’ve been meaning to get them. In any case, I’m really looking forward to it! And I hope she’s a talker. (If she is, I’ll bet she’s sassy.) I love it when performers talk to their audience. I’d love the know the meaning behind “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.” That song haunts me when I hear it.

In any case, I’m looking forward to her setlist, whatever it may be! And don’t worry, I’m not one of those people who shouts requests at the stage. I can’t stand those people. It’s like, I don’t know what hole-in-the-wall dive bar you go to see that band with the homeless, drunk drummer, but professional artists have setlists and they have them for a reason. Sheesh.

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Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

Late last year, NPR ran this piece about the top ten most loved albums by women. The list included, at #5, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood by Neko Case. Neko and her album are up there with some of the Greats. Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday… That’s some pretty lofty praise!

I think the album is pretty deserving. Why must the greatest albums be 40 years old (or older)? Why does it seem that a certain amount of time must pass for an album to qualify as “greatest”? Anyway, this sounds like it was fairly objective poll, when you set aside where the pool comes from.

What makes it so great? Let’s start with the opening song, “Margaret Vs. Pauline,” which is an instant favorite of mine. It lulls you with minimal guitar strings, then Neko’s voice comes in strong, but not overpowering. She tells the story of two women, very different from each other – one adored and the other ignored. One unbelievably blessed and the other inexplicably unlucky. It just breaks your heart with the line about the relative misfortunes each has to face: The worst thing to happen to Pauline was that she left her sweater on the train. Margaret lost three fingers at the cannery.

And then (later) there’s “Hold On, Hold On.” At the time it was the only autobiographical song Neko had ever written; it was actually about her. Something about the lines “In the end I was the mean girl/Or somebody’s in-between girl” just gets me.

“A Widow’s Toast” is a fantastic minimal track – Minimal and yet somehow Neko’s voice sounds larger than life. “Specters move like pilot flames” is such a great image.

A little gospel comes into play in “John Saw That Number,” probably the most upbeat song on the album.

“Lion’s Jaws” is another favorite of mine. Neko’s voice sounds so sultry and heavy – which is appropriate for a tale of seduction. Maybe it’s just my imagination running wild, but I picture two old friends at a high school reunion (20 or 30 years, at least) having one last dance together as they remember the night they once spent together after prom. It’s got this sort of melancholy, slow-dance feel to it.

The poetic “Maybe Sparrow” comes next. It’s melodic and plaintive and Neko’s voice works so well with the music to tell the story of this sparrow.

Actually, every song tells a story on this album. Whether it’s about Neko, the people or places she knew, or things she was just totally making up, every song stands out on its own, with some stand out lines that make me pause to really listen to them. And her voice? Just amazing. She has so much control over it, and it complements the instruments so well. They balance each other perfectly.

Fox Confessor is the music equivalent of a book of poetry. Will people still look back on it as one of the greatest albums 40 years from now? I think if more people heard it, they might. Neko Case occupies a comfortable place between wildly popular and vaguely indie. I do wish more people would give her a listen though. This is such a powerful album and I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t heard of Neko Case.

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The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Let’s start this entry with the correct pronunciation of Neko Case’s name: It’s KNEE-co. Not NECK-oh. It’s okay, I was saying it wrong for the longest time too.

So here’s something superficial about her latest album: I’m not a fan of the cover.

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What’s with that stretchy face? It’s like someone screwed up in Photoshop and was too lazy to start over. Why couldn’t we get the same cover as the vinyl edition?

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Ah, Neko. I still love you anyway.

Neko Case might have been my first true foray into the country genre, although I’m sure country music purists would say she’s alt country at best. That’s okay. The point is Neko Case is fantastic. Some of her stuff even reminds me a bit of Sheryl Crow in the 90’s.

Still, I have to say this isn’t my favorite Neko album — but that doesn’t mean I don’t like it! It just feels less country and more rock at times. I like both genres, but when it comes to Neko, I like it when she’s more country. Her voice was made for it. Also, her voice seems to have become stronger and bolder with age, so that’s a good thing.

Sound-wise, the album is pretty eclectic for Neko Case: From the wild country rock sound of “Man” to the sad yet supportive a Capella “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.” The hippie folksy cover of “Madonna of the Wasps” makes me think of Neko and M. Ward (from She & Him, also the other vocalist on this song) playing guitar in a field with flowers in their hair, while “Yon Ferrets Return” conjures up images of Neko riding across the Wild West in a covered wagon with some of her closest band mates.

One of the things I really like about Neko Case is the way her lyrics make me stop and listen. Here are a few of my favorites:

Did it poison my food?/Is it ’cause I’m a girl?/If I puked up some sonnets,/Would you call me a miracle? – “Night Still Comes”

I was surprised when you called me a lady/’Cause I’m still not so sure that that’s what I want to be/’Cause I remember the 80’s/And I remember its puffy sleeves. – “I’m From Nowhere” (Also: God, if you only knew/What my candied fists could do.”)

And pretty much all of “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” but especially: Some days you’ll feel like a cartoon/And people will rush to make excuses for you.

Overall, the album sounds very autobiographical. It might be Neko’s most personal album to date, lyrically. “City Swan” and “Calling Cards” are great examples. However, I feel like this album may be more for fans than new listeners. If you’re interested in trying Neko Case and willing to taste a little country without taking a big bite (you picky eater, you) then I would recommend Blacklisted.

Anyway, I can’t give a review of the album without sharing a track! So here’s the first single: “Man.”

Listen carefully for some of my favorite lyrics: I’m not the runt of the litter/Fat-fingered bullies were no match for me. Also: And if I’m dipshit drunk on pink perfume,/Then I am the man in the fucking moon.

I always cringe at songs where women compare strength to being (like) a man. But I feel like maybe that’s not quite what this song is about. Anyway, I still like it! It’s got an attitude and it’s not afraid to show it. So, without further ado (yes, that is Neko in drag and a cigarette in that horse’s mouth):

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