Neko Case - Celebration Series
Saturday, January 13th at 7:30pm
Barre Opera House | Barre, VT
When it comes to the art of telling tales, Jim Thompson had it pegged. There are 32 ways to write a story, the noir author famously observed, but only one plot: Things are not as they seem. The story of Neko Case, similarly, could be told a number of different ways; but the facts, as always, yield only a part of the truth.
There is the basic, by now familiar biographical arc: Cases childhood in Washington State, art school in Vancouver, her early baptism into the world of country and gospel music, and contemporary gigs in distaff punk trios Maow and Cub, as well as a longer (and ongoing) stint in powerhouse Canadian pop group the New Pornographers. Since the late 90s, however, the bulk of Cases energies have been devoted to a thriving solo career. Following three critically lauded studio albums, 1997s The Virginian, 2000s Furnace Room Lullaby, and 2002s masterful Blacklisted; a quietly potent kitchen-recorded EP, Canadian Amp; and last years brilliantly conceived concert collection The Tigers Have Spoken, Case reemerges with her latest, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.
Having been moved from town to town after arriving in the world toward the end of 1970, she eventually settled in Tacoma, Washington. An only child, by the age of 15 she'd left home and quit school. Neko somehow managed to survive on her own, and soon steeped herself in the re-emerging punk scene that roamed wildly between Olympia and Seattle, working at a series of rock clubs and witnessing firsthand the transformative power of bands like the Screaming Trees, Girl Trouble, and Nirvana.
Although she maintains an affinity for punk music and its off-shoots (having begun her musical career as a drummer for The Del-Logs, The Propanes, and Maow), it was the discovery of an obscure spiritual album by Bessie Griffin & Her Gospel Pearls that provided an important paradigm shift for her early on.
"I was 19," she once explained to an interviewer. "I was heavily into punk rock, and punk rock was really dogmatic and macho. But this record made me feel like, you know what, these people are singing about something they really care about. These ladies arent kidding. And they sing about religion with more passion than anybody sings about anything--not about love or sex or violence or anything. Its like their voices are these crazy cannons or something, and they could just blow shit out of their way with them. I wanted to be able to sing like that, because I thought that mustve felt really good."
As it happened, that kind of vibrant voice lurked inside her own body--seemingly born of another era, much older and lived-in than what someone in her thirties should now possess, unleashed at equal turns raucous and otherworldly. Much, of course, has been made of her unique vocal talents, as well as the musical strength of her recordings. Yet it is her lyrical prowess that begs for greater analysis, for her ability to shape verse is on par with everything else that makes her albums so dynamic--her other voice, as it were.
"Ancient strings set feet alight to speed to her such mild grace No monument of tacky gold They smoothed her hair with cinnamon waves And they placed an ingot in her breast to burn cool and collected Fate holds her firm in its cradle and rolls her for a tender Pause to savor Everythings so easy for Pauline..."
W.H. Auden once argued that the standard for recognizing a major poet should be established by the following points: 1. A large body of work; 2. A wide range of subject matter and treatment; 3. An unmistakable originality of vision and style; 4. A mastery of technique; 5. A constant, progressive process of maturation--so that should an authors individual works be placed side by side at any stage of his or her career, it would always be clear which work came first and which came after. As such, his criteria can also be used on the songwriters of our day--the poets of the modern age--although, as Auden himself conceded, only three and a half of the five points really needed to apply.
Regardless, Neko is a major poet by any standard, a songwriter less interested perhaps in traditional narrative form than in distilling a pure moment of time. Shes an artist whose songs are so textured in their presentation that the subtleties filter into the subconscious while the overall effect astonishes. But rather than each of her progressive albums disposing of what came before it, there is, instead, a sense of continuation at play--in which every album exists like the subsequent chapter to a novel that grows more complicated and intriguing as it progresses.