By Eleni P. Austin
Neko Case has been making music for a living since 1997. Born in Virginia in 1970 to teenage parents, Case was raised in Tacoma, Washington. Following a desolate childhood, Case left home at age 15. Initially she gravitated to the nascent Grunge scene of the Pacific Northwest.
In the early 90s, Case attended the Emily Carr Institute Of Design & Technology in Vancouver, B.C. It was there that Case began pursuing a career in music. Her debut, The Virginian was released through the tiny Canadian label, Mint in 1997.
Case’s sophomore release, Furnace Room Lullaby, was a canny mix of sharp originals and trenchant cover songs. She had settled on a style, best described as Country Noir.
More albums followed, Blacklisted in 2002, The Tigers Have Spoken in 2004 and The Fox Confessor Brings The Flood in 2006. Not only was her solo career flourishing, but Case also moonlighted as a featured vocalist in the ad hoc Canadian super group, The New Pornographers. ( The band has recorded five albums since 2000.)
In 2009 Neko Case released her most ambitious effort, Middle Cyclone. A more Pop orientated affair, the gamble paid off. Not only was the album a commercial hit, but Case was also nominated for a Grammy in the Contemporary Folk category.
The last few years Case has been busy recording and touring with The New Pornographers and participating in John Mellencamp and Stephen King’s all-star project, “Ghost Brothers Of Darkland County.” But more recently she suffered a bout with depression following the deaths of her emotionally distant parents and her beloved Grandmother.
Case struggled to create her new album, and that’s even reflected in the lengthy title, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.
The album opens with the one-two punch of “Wild Creatures” and “Night Still Comes.” Anchored by a waltz-y, see-saw cadence and lush harmonies, “Wild Creatures” is a lonely Cri de Coeur for emotional independence… “I’m not fighting for your freedom; I’m fighting to be wise.”
“Night Still Comes” is a minor key masterpiece. Descending piano chords collide with swirling, slightly spiritual vocals. Case demands that her quirky charms be acknowledged… “If I puked up some sonnets, would you call me a miracle?”
Case’s stream-of-conscious lyrics often tackle serious topics. Gender politics are thoroughly examined from each side on “I’m From Nowhere,” and “Man.” Spare and austere, “I’m From Nowhere,” is cloaked in torch and twang. Case starts off with an amusing aside… “I remember the ‘80s, I remember it’s puffy sleeves.” Then she goes on to assert her autonomy.
With “Man,” Case flips the script, adopting a masculine point of view, swaggering and posturing. The music matches her macho mannerisms, blending blitzkrieg guitars and whip crack percussion.
Four tracks, “Calling Cards,” “Local Girl,” “Where Did I Leave That Fire” and “City Swans” beautifully blend the ache of heartbreak with incandescent melodies that completely seduce the listener.
“Calling Cards” recalls a failed relationship with a fellow songwriter… “Every downtown, every truck stop, every heartbreak I love you more.” Case’s tone is both sincere and sarcastic, but the lyrics are enveloped in a loping backbeat, sparkling guitars, elegiac trumpet fills and yearning Wurlitzer runs.
“Local Girl” is a defiant treatise on hypocrisy, but Case’s indignation is camouflaged by Girl Group harmonies and Surf guitar riffs. Powered by whimsical clavinet and ping-ing sonar samples, “Where Did I Leave That Fire” finds Case turning her waspish tongue on herself…. “I wanted so badly not to be me.”
Finally, “City Swans” weds jangly guitar and plinking piano to a locomotive rhythm. As the whole enterprise gathers speed, piano and guitar lock into a soaring groove and Case’s crystalline vocals cascade over this shimmery delight.
Case matches her sweetest, most infectious melodies to harrowing, real life scenarios on both “Bracing For Sunday” and “Nearly Midnight In Honolulu.” Anchored by a galloping gait, sunburst guitar licks, elastic bass lines and a honking horn section, the former details a grisly, backwoods murder.
The latter is stark and beautiful. An angelic acappella number, casually narrating a vignette of child abuse that Case had actually witnessed in Hawaii.
Case continues her tradition of including an eclectic cover song on each album. In the past she’s tackled artists as disparate as Queen, Ernest Tubb, Tom Waits, Loretta Lynn and Sparks. This time she works up a tender version of “Afraid,” originally written and recorded by former Velvet Underground chanteuse, Nico.
The album closes on a hopeful note with “Ragtime.” Lithe and elegant, anchored by a metronome rhythm and “Penny Lane” style trumpet fanfare, the tune pays homage to the percolating delights of that most American of musical idioms.
Neko Case made this album with her longtime backing band, Jon Rauhouse and Paul Rigby handle guitars, Kelly Hogan provides backing vocals and Tom Ray plays bass. There were a plethora of special guests on hand. A veritable who’s who of indie rock: A.C. Newman from New Pornographers, Jim James, Bo Koster and Carl Broemel from My Morning Jacket. Joey Burns and John Convertino from Calexico. M.Ward from She & Him and Steve Berlin from Los Lobos.
Neko Case has been quoted saying that creating this album was “like birthing an albatross.” Although these songs are suffused in melancholy, Case’s exquisite sense of melody, coupled with her smoky vocals and crisp instrumentation make The Worse Things Get…. an unmitigated triumph.