Neko Case In The Crystal Ballroom
Seats for Neko Case's show at the Paramount in Seattle were already selling for $250 back in April. They were only $25 per in Portland so a kindly internet goddess, aka Lord Wife, swooped in to scoop up two for my birthday, booking us onto an Amtrak and into the Hotel DeLuxe. It's just a few blocks away from the Crystal Ballroom where she played two nights, an old hall with a fully functional "floating floor" once popular for swing dancing.
I was turned onto Neko Case by a friend's facebook aside in late February, never hearing anything of her before. The more she sinks in now, the clearer she stands as a poet who happened to develop into a singer. Poetry in turn brings back Mr. Marcinec, my high school AP English teacher, who once asked the class to debate whether verse can be assessed on technical merits alone, or if the artist's life must be taken into account. The answer, to me, was as sharp as a late hit. If you walk home past dark woods on bitter-cold nights near Robert Frost's haunts, as I did, musing on death whilst rejecting it is an option is easy to spot. You have to move, or you have to freeze.
Knowing that Coleridge woke up from his opium dreaming of Xanadu and Kubla Khan increases your odds at guessing what suppressed wish a stately Pleasure Dome signifies, and J. Alfred Prufrock's spiritual exhaustion starts to resonate when you plot it against T.S. Eliot's European travels as Edwardian life unraveled prior to World War One. Neko Case went to school in Tacoma, leaving home at 15 to live in a classmate's unfinished cellar while the nearby Green River Killer was ripping through more than 70 young women, half of them under-aged runaways. She's still scared to walk alone at night, and absent that context, you might awkwardly misinterpret one of her most popular songs, Deep Red Bells. She wrote it not as an ode to g-spots, but to victims:
where does this mean world cast its cold eye?Putting Case's name in the same breath as Coleridge and Eliot is intentional. She belongs. At 18, she started playing drums for a succession of punk bands. A god-given ability to sing was noticed and invited to do covers, and from there she went on to share in the artistic processes of a number of bands. She credits collaboration with musicians such as The New Pornographers, The Corn Sisters, The Sadies, Cub, Maow, and Kelly Hogan for teaching her the craft. She began to write her own material, releasing her first solo album (The Virginian) in 1997.
who's left to suffer long about you?
does your soul cast about like an old paper bag
past empty lots and early graves?
those like you who lost their way
murdered on the interstate
while the red bells rang like thunder
deep red bells, deep as I've been done
Her pieces combine stark observation with gorgeous melodies and fervent passions. Anger stirs unmistakably below all the surfaces, and there's a wild, even creepy quality to her, like wind blowing dust over abandoned roadside attractions. Flash-floods of overstuffed vans and army bases, grabby brakes and shabby blokes, emotional voids and hangovers, waitress gigs and crippling angsts come gushing through like gray water in laundromats. While her songs aren't always equally intense or personal they're sent from the same address, and she writes only as a woman who has been helpless before men can. It must've been very tough for a control freak of such high order. Her body of solo work is nothing less than a resolution to turn and face the humiliations of love, and, with music as her protector, to learn. With Middle Cyclone, she sets out to explore, finally having taken her struggle by the smooth handle.
The album seems to rein in vocal strength in favor of sharper lyrical focus. Every note and part of each composition is arranged to let you apprehend the words, delivered atop exceptionally precise instrumentals which often meander from traditional verse/chorus structure to weave in micro-songs. Heard live, the band performed a studio-perfect version of every piece, so tightly that "Neko Case" might best be thought of as a collective. Middle Cyclone was accordingly recorded in her barn in Vermont with over a dozen musical guests, including Garth Hudson (formerly of The Band), M Ward and a nest of robins in the rafters.
The Crystal Ballroom was Sold Out and a waiting line had already formed outside the closed box office two hours before the show. We spotted it in perfect time, so I snagged the best standing-room spots in the house--we occupied the "Magic Corner" 20 feet away from the artistic breakthrough of the year's main mike. Even without industry backing (Case's US label is ANTI-), Middle Cyclone debuted at #3 on Billboard, occupies the #2 spot on US Rock and is easily the most successful indie release of 2009. After a long hike, she arrived at a secret narrow embarkation point where critical acclaim meets critical mass.
Case had long been pigeonholed as a banshee, a speed-baller for belting out other people's songs. While there's no overlooking her dominating voice, labeling her as a torch singer is downright obstructive, and fails to describe how she can sail across genres and vocal planes. Let me put it this way: she could sing like Patsy Cline, Tanya Tucker or Rosemary Clooney, but they could not have easily returned the favor. As a pure singer, she's capable of nerdy introspection, tobacco-row mourning, indie-pop smoothies, eco-folk, jagged punk, charcoal chanteuse, retro orchestra and I would bet Wagnerian opera. She can conjure an interstate truck stop at 4AM, high school sweethearts home for goosebumps, fuzzy heroin magic carpets, square dancers bouncing off '68 Cadillacs with big chrome bumpers, and spiky CBGB mosh pits. Her voice attracted big-label attentions, but its proprietor had other plans:
"I'm not out to become Faith Hill, I never want to play an arena, and I never want to be on the MTV Video Music Awards, much less make a video with me in it. I would like to reach a larger audience and see the state of music change in favor of musicians and music fans in my lifetime. I care very much about that."Case claimed there would be no love songs on Middle Cyclone, that all the lyrics could be taken literally, that Nature would be the focus. Which may be technically true, but it's akin to Stephen King stating, "I'm through with horror. My next books will all be travel guides." Ruthless restraint and a naturalist's aperture are devices which set the album apart, brilliantly so, because her genies can't be bottled or chained. You feel them straining and threatening to break loose at a remove, and you can hear when they beat the screens down. The first song is about a libidinous tornado unable to find its lover, or make him understand, carving his name across three counties. "People Got A Lotta Nerve" is about a caged elephant and an aquarium killer whale taking revenge, but like Coleridge's subconscious, Case sidles up and becomes a defiant predator giving fair warning. Then, as with Frost's deep dark woods at night, it's a mite difficult to rule out indelicate possibilities when she tosses her throat back and wails, "I'm a man-man-man, man-man-man eater!"
At a concert you pick up things the albums and tubes can't convey. You realize Neko's an introvert, not very comfortable in the spotlight, self-conscious of her relatively flat butt. Her skin and hair have the translucence and texture of perogies in orange vodka sauce, and she honestly loves animals. She's really just there to cut diamonds, and to compensate she's hired a statuesque, lung-expanding brunette backup singer arc-welded like a water tower to her left who banters in the pauses like an extroverted emcee, announcing her love for good burgers, that she's 46, and "my beauty secret is low wattage."
Before singing "The Pharaohs" Case remarks, "This song is about my second boyfriend," and when she pours out the bourbons of "my body burned, my legs ached/but you never came to bed/you just left me there awake/you kept me wanting wanting wanting/like the wanting in the movies and the hymns," veins thick as her middle fingers stand out on her neck. She discloses that "Red Tide" is about 3 million assholes who moved apropos to Seattle during grunge's gestation and suddenly noticed they hate the rain. The mollusks, they have won. You notice she reads voraciously and make a mental note: if you ever run into her, don't ask her about what she's done. Ask what she thinks of The Confessions of St. Augustine.
After whistlings and stompings on the trampoline floor the backup singer came back up first for the encore and you caught her say "Oh, what the hell." They played for another forty-five minutes, so you knew they were done for good and pressed back through the bodies of screaming cognoscenti. You walked up to the DeLuxe and asked your wife how best to classify sui generis. She pauses and says, "Country gothic," and you think of how Boadicea might have fared if she'd properly armored herself for the Romans and their arenas. You think of her song about waking up to disorienting hotel fans spinning overhead, heads webbed with indiscretions watching maids who have nowhere else to be in Portland on a Sunday morning:
Prison girls are not impressed
They’re the ones that have to clean this mess
They’ve traded more for cigarettes
Than I’ve managed to express