To say Neko Case has had a storied career would be an understatement. In over two decades, she has released two albums with Her Boyfriends; six solo albums, including her latest Hell-On; plus a great collaboration with k.d. lang and Laura Veirs (case/lang/veirs); and, of course, another seven LPs with The New Pornographers. From possessing one of the great voices in music history to her vivid songwriting to her cheeky personality that is on full display during live performances, Case’s influence is one for the music history books. She’s written some of the 21st Century’s great albums (Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Middle Cyclone), so where does Hell-On reside?
We offer our First Impressions of the record, which Case self-produced with help from Bjorn Yttling of (Peter Bjorn & John). The record includes guest performances by Beth Ditto (Gossip), Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees/QOTSA), k.d. Lang, AC Newman (New Pornographers), Eric Bachmann (Crooked Fingers), long-time collaborator Kelly Hogan, Doug Gillard (Guided By Voices/Nada Surf), Laura Veirs, Joey Burns (Calexico), and many more.
“I chipped my tooth on an engagement ring – that’s bad luck.” These lyrics from the buoyant fourth track on the album clinched my seal of approval. In my defense, I find it hard to be critical of Neko Case because she is one of indie music’s most authentic talents. She wears her honesty as proudly as the bold, block-letter tattoos that adorn her forearms. Her “IDGAF” attitude seeps into every aspect of her persona, whether in her music or her social media presence. Simply put: Neko Case lives her life on her terms and no one else’s. She isn’t trying to prove anything to anyone. She is neither trying to hide under a carefully curated persona nor pretending to be anything other than a straight-shooting, no-holds-barred artist. This is where she succeeds, time and time again.
This is not to say her seventh album is perfect. Hell-On is no Fox Confessor Brings the Flood or Furnace Room Lullaby. But she wasn’t trying to duplicate those award-winning albums. Instead, the record is Case’s personal statement about who she is and where she’s headed after nearly 25 years in the business. Once again, she has help from many of her musician friends. Those collaborative efforts are great but not necessary to the album’s success. Neko’s strongest songs on this album – “Bad Luck” and the haunting “Hell-On” – cement their placement on an eventual Greatest Hits collection. While the mellower tunes (namely “Sleep All Summer”) may not dazzle every fan, their inclusion on this strong album still prove that Neko Case is a reliably consistent artist whose music never strays far from the bullseye.
Hell-On is a solid, commendable effort that is worth savoring from start to finish, despite a few weaker moments towards the end.
Throughout her career, Neko Case has mesmerized long-time fans with her incredible voice and creative storytelling. At times she’s like a poet and another moment she’s the greatest fable writer of the past 40 years, painting vivid stories that include sparrows, foxes, and almighty storms. But since Middle Cyclone, Case started to look a lot more introspective and her songs took on more of a social and political tone, albeit with her trademark dry wit and wide-eyed color. For Hell-On, she gets much more personal and delivers some of her best lyrics since Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.
Musically, Case isn’t forging new ground. She keeps things mellow and subdued, allowing her voice and those of her many collaborators as well as her songwriting to shine. On the silently gritty, “Diamond Dirty” and the dark-folk ballad “Oracle Of The Maritimes”, a heavier, edgier approach would have turned these clever tales into bone-shaking experiences. The love ballad, “Sleep All Summer”, meanwhile is a hiccup, recalling Case’s famous quote after being asked about “This Tornado Loves You” from Middle Cyclone – “I don’t write love songs. I just don’t like to do it.”
The rest of Hell-On, however, is a grand achievement. At the forefront are the sneakily creepy title track; exhilarating finale, “Pitch Or Honey”, which is a song to Case’s youth; and the shimmering “Bad Luck”. “Trying to pass riddles as poetry”, she says on the latter to not just wannabe poets but also to her younger self. In addition, she makes up for “Sleep All Summer” with the stunning ballad, “Curse of the I-5 Corridor”. It is a trip down memory lane, including the darker corners of her life. It’s a side of Case that she often hid behind the riddles she wrote in the past.
When Case gets a little political, the pen gets a little sharper and her aim is true. On “Hall of Sarah”, she describes America as a “childless widow” being surrounded by violence and those who wish to steal her limited possessions. The clever “Gumball Blue” reflects the consumerism that engulfs the world, where we are witnesses to “damp bodies crammed in Times Square” and lives clinging to the beep of a mobile phone. While many choose to be limited to a single device, Case has proven once again she will not succumb to being pigeonholed or restricted. Instead, she continues to reinvent herself without sacrificing her always intelligent and witty lyricism and a voice for the ages.
- Last Lion Of Albion
- Halls of Sarah
- Bad Luck
- Curse of the I-5 Corridor
- Gumball Blue
- Dirty Diamond
- Oracle Of The Maritime
- Sleep All Summer
- My Uncle’s Navy
- Pitch Or Honey
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