Neko Case (photo by Emily Shur, PR)
Acclaimed indie singer-songwriter Neko Case hasn’t released a solo album for a while, but she's hardly been silent.
Case’s latest endeavor is Hell-On, arriving nearly five full years after The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. Between these projects, Case was busy working with her other creative outlets — the band New Pornographers, and a collaboration with contemporaries k.d. lang and Laura Veirs.
With the New Pornographers, Case contributed vocals to 2014’s Brill Bruisers and last year’s Whiteout Conditions. Meanwhile, 2016 saw the emergence of the ‘super trio’ case/lang/veirs and their acclaimed, self-titled album. Now, Case returns to her own, personal spotlight.
Work on what would become Hell-On began in the aftermath of the case/lang/veirs tour. The opportunity to collaborate with lang and Veirs was one of the key factors that influenced Case’s approach towards this latest solo project. Besides picking up some new techniques in production and music making, Case was inspired and empowered by the often-overlooked contributions made by female artists and the role they play in today’s music.
Case strove to push herself out of any comfort zones she might have settled into, with the goal of creating something different. She asked Bjorn Yttling (of Peter Bjorn and John) for help co-producing some of her new tracks, and headed to Stockholm to record. Along the way, Carl Newman (Case’s New Pornographers bandmate), Mark Lanegan, Steve Berlin (of Los Lobos), Kelly Hogan, Eric Bachmann, Joey Burns (of Calexico), Beth Ditto, Veirs and lang all made contributions to the project.
Unfortunately, not everything went smoothly for Case during the sessions. Well into the recording phase in Stockholm, word reached Case that her home back in the States was being destroyed by a fire. While her dogs had been rescued, and no one was injured, her house, her barn, and many prized possessions were lost. Fortunately, this horror didn’t seep into the music. She was determined to overcome the hardship and stoically carried on. As she says in her bio, "When nature burns your house down, you can't take it personally.”
Hell-On begins with the mysterious title track. The first sounds we hear are that of a kalimba, and Case sings, “And me, I am not a mess. I am a wilderness, yes. The undiscovered continent for you to undress. But you’ll not be my master. You’re barely my guest.” Her knack for unorthodox song structures is displayed on the seven-minute “Curse Of The I-5 Corridor,” which features Lanegan adding a counterbalance to Case’s vocals. “Bad Luck” combines an upbeat melody with an ironic lyrical twist, culminating in the line, “So I died and went to work.”
“Gumball Blue,” which states, “I’ve lived singing your songs,” is a nod to Carl Newman, and she reached out to him for help with the song’s melody. Another song that expresses admiration for someone is “Winnie.” Here, Case sings, “I wanted to be her sailor’s tattoo,” without revealing the identity of this mystery person. It’s a perfect example of Case’s nebulous imagery and veiled meanings. The album’s lone cover is “Sleep All Summer,” first recorded by Crooked Fingers in 2005. Bachmann, the band's frontman, wrote the tune and shares lead vocals with Case.
The first steps on the road to Hell-On were made in the second half of the 1990s, when Case got involved in music professionally while attending college in Vancouver. She released her first album, The Virginian, with her band, Her Boyfriends, in 1997. She followed it in 2000 with Furnace Room Lullaby, the second and final album credited to Neko Case and her Boyfriends. In addition to her own music, Case played in a number of other bands, including one that would become the New Pornographers, who released their first album, Mass Romantic, later in 2000.
There’s no doubt Case is an unconventional writer, and Hell-On is rich with examples of this – look no further than “Oracle Of The Maritimes” and “Pitch Or Honey” (“I wrote this song for me. And now I let it go. From the island of the Texaco. I release it into the custody of my huckleberry friend.”)
This is how Case has become such a beloved artist. She possesses the ability to create melodically rich and thought-invoking pop music that celebrates the spirit of artistic expression, leaves plenty of space for interpretation, and strives to rarely walk down paths already traveled. Hell-On captures all of this, and more.
Listen to a WFUV and NPR Music "First Listen Live" with Neko Case, recorded at Littlefield, tonight at 8 p.m. EDT on FUV. You can also listen to the show and to Rita Houston's interview with Neko Case anytime online.