Like many people, I made the Neko Case connection through The New Pornographers, but I didn’t discover them until Challengers came out in 2007. The first five years of the millennium were my dissolute college years when I devoted most of my time to the erotic arts and left music on the back burner; after that I spent two years trying to figure out how to make a living. That search led to a move to Seattle, where I knew no one except my Aunt Pug and her hubby, so I had several months to myself to re-engage with music before my partner burst into my life.
Challengers was such a great record that I went back and bought the three albums that preceded it and became a passionate New Pornographers fan. I loved their powerful rhythm section, the beautiful melodies and the breathtaking harmonies. Though I never developed a taste for Dan Bejar’s songs, A. C. Newman’s tunes always surprised and delighted me. And when Neko Case was part of the package, whether singing or trading lead vocals, or harmonizing with Carl or Kathryn Calder, I was as happy as a single girl in transition with a complete set of vibrators could be.
Somehow I found out that Neko Case had released a solo album the year before Challengers and I bought it immediately without bothering to sample it. My first reaction to the sounds coming through my headphones was thorough dismay. Country music? What the fuck is this? I had concluded that any country music that came out after Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It” was automatically overproduced, lifeless crap designed for dumb white people. I was absolutely furious that Neko Case would subject me to such torture, but as the CD kept spinning, the sound of Neko’s rich, full voice drew me in. I stopped the music, emptied my mind of all preconceived notions I had attached to the music of red state yahoo culture, poured myself a glass of wine, lit a cigarette and concentrated hard on the sounds of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.
I now own every Neko Case solo recording going back to the Neko Case and Her Boyfriends days and several of her collaborations with other artists. After this particular album came out, she became something of an indie-blue-state star, nominated for Grammies and making appearances on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. But despite the greater success and attention given to the more recent Middle Cyclone and The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, my favorite remains Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, the album that I almost flung out the window seven years ago.
Neko’s music has been classified as “alt-country,” while she prefers the term “country noir.” Whatever the label, it describes a sub-genre that developed in the same way as alternative rock: rejection of the production values and cliché-dominated lyrics used in the mainstream genres. My listening tastes certainly reflect that rejection when it comes to what passes for mainstream rock since the mid-70’s: I can’t stand more than ten seconds of U2 or Coldplay, and those ten seconds are excruciating. I had no idea that the same thing happened in country music, but it made sense. Music has to grow and develop if it is to survive, and modern country music is frozen in time, its lack of real development disguised by louder guitars, smoother production and music videos that make it seem sexy, hip and exciting to patriotic morons.
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is decidedly not for morons. A collection of stories based on personal recollections recast in the dark-humor and irony of the Eastern European fairy tales she heard as a girl, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is a work of remarkable beauty and genuine depth that deals with issues that your typical country musician would never touch.
The tone of the album is clearly established in the dark, moving and cinema-verité-like “Margaret vs. Pauline.” The first time I really listened to it, chills ran up and down my spine and at the end I stood up and applauded to an empty room. The performance was off-the-charts outstanding, the background music subtle and solid, and the lyrics were Richard Thompson-quality, full of memorable phrases, cutting metaphors and disciplined poetic economy.
“Margaret vs. Pauline” is the story of two girls who grew from different roots in the same town; the classic right-side/wrong-side of the tracks dichotomy. We meet Pauline first:
Everything’s so easy for Pauline
Everything’s so easy for Pauline
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 then rolls her for a tender pause to savor
Everything’s so easy for Pauline
The word selection here is precise and exquisite. The “ancient strings” tell us that Pauline is of superior lineage, born to grace and finer taste. The choice to use the more expressive word “cinnamon” over a dull color label intensifies the allure of the image that comes to mind: a beautiful young girl with her cinnamon tresses falling neatly and gently on her shoulders. The equally brilliant choice to build the line around the concrete word “ingot” instead of something as trite and abstract as “cold-hearted” intensifies the emotional impact a hundredfold. Finally, the heavily ironic line, “Fate holds her firm its cradle” describes a life fully protected and nursed by virtue of her lineage; using “fate” to describe the hereditary fix reminds us that class differences are as rigid and as seemingly unchangeable as fate. Neko’s vocal on this song is not completely detached from the story and its meaning; there is a faint tone of hardness in her voice as she tries to explain how the world works but is equally tired of the way the world works. The semi-detachment works to perfection, though, and serves to trigger a justifiable sense of outrage in the listener as the tale unfolds.
Next we meet Margaret, the girl whose people aren’t the right kind:
Girl with the parking lot eyes
Margaret is the fragment of a name
Her bravery is mistaken for the thrashing in the lake
By a make-believe monster whose picture is fake
Margaret is the fragment of a name
Her love pours like a fountain
Her love steams like rage
Jaw aches from wanting
And she’s sick from chlorine
But she’ll never be as clean
As the cool side of satin Pauline
This fragment of a name is doomed to a life where she will never be noticed or taken as seriously as Pauline. The imagery of the “make-believe monster whose picture is fake” calls up the tacky cover stories about alien invasions I used to see on the tabloids lining the entry to the supermarket checkout stands of the USA. The image serves to draw the vast gulf between these two girls: Pauline would never encounter such lower-class cultural signals as she moves gracefully through her cocoon of a world. And unlike the cool and collected approach to human mating, where the privileged marry within very tight circles, Margaret is a girl of uncontrollable passions, something Pauline and her kind would dismiss as behavior in very bad taste. No matter how much Margaret wants, no matter how hard she tries, she will never have the grace of a Pauline, or the opportunities Pauline had from birth.
The entire story is told in three spare verses, and the conclusion comes with stark suddenness:
Two girls ride the Blue Line
Two girls walk down the same street
One left a sweater sitting on the train
And the other lost three fingers at the cannery
I’m assuming that the Blue Line refers to The T in Boston, for class differences and heredity matter more in New England than anywhere else in the United States. The final couplet is chilling, indeed: the imagery of Margaret losing her fingers because her membership in a lower caste has sentenced her to a life of menial labor (whether she marries or not) feels like a punch in the gut. For me, though, the preceding line is equally chilling, because if someone like Margaret had left her sweater on the train, she might be facing a beating when she got home, or have to skip a few meals until she could scrape up enough money to replace it. The juxtaposition of the two lines demonstrates that the idle wastefulness of the upper classes and its consequent detachment from humanity is just as cruel an image as a girl losing her fingers in an industrial accident. The lines that end the song are just as important and impactful:
Everything’s so easy for Pauline,
Everything is for Pauline in the USA, as demonstrated by the growing income disparity and the universal obsession with the lives of the rich and famous. Americans don’t want to change the system because they’re programmed to believe that a few lucky breaks will allow them reach the top . . . and when they get there, they’ll happily forget about all the Margarets who were once their friends and neighbors. “Margaret vs. Pauline” is a masterful indictment of the hereditary class system that has dominated America for decades and remains firmly in place today.
The languorous arrangement of “Star Witness,” beautifully integrating heavily reverbed guitar with very subtle cello and violin, calls up a series of memory fragments of observed and experienced victimization. The opening stanza describes the unintentional shooting of a young black kid caught in the crossfire of a gang war in Chicago, a shooting that Neko personally witnessed:
My true love drowned
In a dirty old pan of oil
That did run from the block
Of a Falcon sedan 1969
The paper said ’75
There were no survivors
None found alive
The experience triggers memories of a personal story of victimization, but whether the narrator is Neko or she’s channeling the experience of a friend is unknown and irrelevant. The narrator of the second story is a young teenage girl revisiting the shabby neighborhood of her youth, where tree roots break through the untended sidewalks. She recalls drinking out of an aged thermos with broken glass, skinning her knees on the pavement, and an incident involving one of the “tender wolves ’round town tonight.” Like Margaret, “her love pours like a fountain,” making her an easy and tempting target.
“Hey pretty baby get high with me,
We can go to my sister’s if we say we’ll watch the baby.”
The look on your face yanks my neck on the chain
And I would do anything (I would do anything)
To see you again
So I’ve fallen behind.
This proves to be an error in judgment, as the wolf only has one brutal thing on his mind:
Go on, go on and scream and cry
You’re miles from where anyone will find you
This is nothing new
No television crew
They don’t even put on the siren
It’s a traumatic memory called to the surface by the traumatic act of witnessing a kid getting shot down in cold blood on the streets of Chicago:
Please don’t let him die
Oh, how I forgot.
Most rape victims try to forget, without much success. Some rape survivors have described the experience as an out-of-body experience, an emergency coping mechanism to help one survive the debasing humiliation of the moment by separating self from the thing called a body. In such a situation, a woman is the “star witness” as well as the victim.
Neko caught holy hell from the bible-thumping fundamentalist set for the thrice-repeated line “It’s the devil I love” in “Hold On, Hold On.” Below is a sample from jesus-is-savior.com. I was as shocked as you will be to learn that Sir Paul McCartney is a shill for Lucifer. With that angelic face and all!
Neko case (sic) states, “Now it’s the Devil I love.” I have no doubt that she has some cute excuse for her praise of Satan, and I’m sure I’ll receive some letters from her fans telling me that I don’t understand her intent. Whatever her excuse, it is evil (from a Biblical perspective) for anyone to state that they “love the Devil.” I’m sure Paul McCartney also claimed to have good intentions when he was fondling a RAM (a symbol of Satanism) on his 1971 album cover, RAM. Lest anyone should have any doubts, the Beatles included a photo of renowned Satanist, Aleister Crowley, on the front cover of their Sgt. Peppers (sic) album. It cannot be denied that Satanism is incorporated into the rock-n-roll industry. So when you sing about loving the Devil Ms. Case, in light of the abundant evidence of Satanism in the music industry, you have to expect to be exposed. I am not saying Neko Case is a Satanist. I am saying that those artists, who show some type of allegiance to Satan, are the one’s who become the most successful in the industry. This is NO coincidence, for Satan is the god of this sinful world (2nd Corinthians 4:4).
Oh, for fuck’s sake. Make that a triple oh, for fuck’s sake. The song itself is one of the most western songs on the album, with the feel of an old rodeo tune contained in a non-standard song structure. Although she can go there, Neko Case’s songs are driven more by story and feel than the need to adhere to verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse. The very brief track that follows, “A Widow’s Toast,” earned a spot on the album simply to create “more space on the record” and make the other songs stand out. It’s also a lovely display of Neko’s vocal talents, in both lead and harmony roles.
“That Teenage Feeling” opens with a pretty dulcimer reminiscent of the sound of a musical box that melts nicely into a slow-dance beat that calls up images of a lone couple dancing next to the jukebox just before closing time. The first verse deals with the regrets that pile up with age and are as “Common as a winter cold.” In the second verse, Neko recalls a friend who refuses to buy into the culturally-imposed maturation process, believing instead (as I do) that the teenage spirit is not something that we should obediently shed as we become responsible adults, but something that we should hold onto for dear life lest we become slaves to dull routine and predictability:
And nothing comforts me the same
As my brave friend who says
“I don’t care if forever never comes
‘Cause I’m holding on
For that teenage feeling
I’m holding on
For that teenage feeling
Neko’s voice soars beautifully on the closing “Cause it’s hard, hard, hard, hard, hard” fade lines, as if she’s struggling to break free of the limitations and expectations of maturity. I also love how they bring in a touch of garage rock guitar to reinforce the teenage feeling during the lines quoted above, once again proving how little things matter in music.
The title track seems like a trip into esoterica, but is actually based on a character in a Ukrainian fairy tale. A delightfully persistent gentleman named Drew Mackie penetrated the puzzle in a blog post on his Back to the Cereal Box site, quoting frequently from a brilliant review of the album by Scott Reid on his Coke Machine Glow blog. Quoting from Scott Reid’s review:
Fox Confessor‘s title is taken from Ukrainian mythology—the fable of the (cunning, ruthless) fox and the (naïve, defeated) wolf. Circumstances vary with each telling, but the message is practically the same: the fox, thirsting for the wolf’s need for absolution, cons its way into assuming the role of the trusted confessor, then promptly uses that relationship to abandon/seduce/kill/eat/generally fuck over its unsuspecting prey. In one telling, the fox fools the wolf into believing it can control the ocean’s tides. The trusting wolf, naïve enough to believe the fox has the power to control nature, heads into the swelling ocean, only to wash up on shore a pathetic stiff/delicious meal moments later.
Both Reid and Mackie come to the same conclusion that I do: that Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is a tightly-woven album with very strong interlocking themes. We’ve already seen the manifestation of the victimization theme in “Margaret vs. Pauline” and “Star Witness.” In this song Neko expands and enriches the theme by linking it more explicitly to the archetype of predator and prey, applying that archetype to human relationships. The metaphor has the effect of holding up the mirror to the human face to see the reflection of the beast in the glass. What’s interesting is that the song that most vividly details the central theme of the album appears in the middle of the record rather than the beginning. Retrospectively, you can certainly apply the theme to “Margaret vs. Pauline” with Pauline a member of the predatory class who prey on the Margarets of the world, and to “Star Witness,” where the manipulative predator takes advantage of the naïve girl. As the album progresses, the theme will be revisited in “Dirty Knife,” “Lion’s Jaw” and “Maybe Sparrow.” The placement of “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” seems odd in one sense, but that’s because we’re programmed to think in straight narrative lines. A theme that radiates from the center of the listening experience proves to have greater power, forcing you to rethink initial interpretations and approach the later songs with greater awareness of the pattern woven by the artist.
Neko seems to do a complete u-turn with her adaptation of a spiritual in “John Saw That Number.” If there’s one thing this track proves, it’s that Neko Case can sing anything exceptionally well and has no problem bridging apparently incompatible gaps in spiritual beliefs. Her glissandi on this song are like frissons, and the sheer power of her voice has the same effect. This side trip to Revelations is interrupted with the return of the beast in “Dirty Knife,” a dark and dissonant piece accentuated by cello thrusts and a beautifully eerie harmonic passage sung in Ukrainian. From a dramatic standpoint, this is one of the strongest pieces on the album, a performance that grabs you as completely as if you were a child listening to an unsanitized version of Grimm’s fairy tales on the darkest night of the year.
“Lion’s Jaw” strengthens the predator-vs-prey theme with a tale of a broken relationship. Neko sings this song with the weariness you hear in the great women blues singers, and the reasons for that weariness are clear in the story:
the night I fell into the lion’s jaws
to my regret and your delight
those teeth themselves could not divine
nor their pressure estimate
the haze I wished you’d never break
and to never contemplate
momentum for the sake of momentum
momentum for the sake of momentum
I see here a young girl caught up in the dreamy teenage haze of first romance, a haze broken by the young man’s insatiable need to push the relationship into the sexual arena before the girl was ready. The momentum in question is the relentless momentum of the teenage stud out to prove himself a man instead of paying heed to the feelings and needs of his partner. She’s like the poor baby gazelle trapped in the lion’s jaws, all for the sake of hormonal momentum.
In “Maybe Sparrow,” Neko questions the inevitability of the predator-prey dynamic, or at least introduces the possibility that the prey can break the dynamic by making better choices. She expresses an admiration for the beauty of the sparrow’s song while implying a fervent wish that the song will continue unabated:
Notes are hung so effortless
With the rise and fall of sparrow’s breast
It’s a drowning diving
Back to the chorus la dee dum
The sparrow is incapable of escaping the instructions embedded in its genetic program and falls prey to a hungry owl (as shown in the music video). In the last verse, Neko herself becomes the sparrow as she flies above a storm in a passenger jet, pondering her role as a singer in a culture of the stubbornly deaf:
Maybe sparrow, it’s too late
The moonlight glanced off metal wings
In a thunderstorm above the clouds
The engine hums a sparrow’s phrase
For those who cannot hear the words
For those who cannot hear the words
Those who will not hear the words
The difference between sparrow and woman is that Neko can make choices to override the genetic program, as her diverse and independent career has demonstrated. “Maybe Sparrow” is a stunningly beautiful piece, with Neko’s clear voice weaving over cello and guitar in the still opening verse before the drums kick in to add forward movement. Neko’s voice and the acoustic guitar weave together as beautifully as a Billie Holiday/Lester Young duet. In the last verse, the arrangement returns to the relative quiet of the intro, with the band re-entering on Neko’s passionate recitation of the “who cannot hear the words” lines. Her fade on the high held note reminds us of the “notes are hung so effortless” line describing the sparrow’s natural gifts.
The lovely and too, too brief piece “At Last” follows, a lush melding of Neko’s voice and 12-string guitar, spiced with touches of slide and deep Duane Eddy-like picked notes. The piece plays a role similar to that of “A Widow’s Toast,” cleaning the sonic palate for the listener. The album closes with “The Needle Has Landed,” a co-creation of Neko and her fabulous backing band, The Sadies. The story of the song takes place in the Tacoma area where Neko’s family settled and where Neko would take her first steps into the music world as a drummer for punk bands. The action takes place in Spanaway, a nowheresville unincorporated area near Tacoma that butts up against an air force base. I visited the area once to help a friend pick up a puppy she’d bought from one of the many breeders in the surrounding area and only then did I understand Neko’s cry of “poor Spanaway.” White, working-class, rough around the edges, not a whole lot of excitement and not a whole lot of sophistication. The story has Neko returning for a visit to see an old flame, and as the phonograph needle touches down, it plays the same old song:
The needle’s the same that recorded and played
When you left me at the greyhound the year I moved away
And if I knew then what’s so obvious now
You’d still be here, baby
My baby, baby
So that’s why I never come back here
That’s why they spit out my name
Your exes have clawed up the bible trying to keep me away
With the sledge of tectonic fever
The needle has landed again
Let it play
It’s unclear whether she connects with her former beau, where he is or what happened to him. I don’t believe Neko was trying to shape a coherent story but instead juxtapose a flood of emotionally-charged memories to paint a picture more vivid than a linear recitation of dates and places. Thanks to The Sadies, the background music on this piece is worth the price of admission all by itself. The weaving of guitar, mandolin and strings is moving and magical.
While Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is a penetrating exposé of the socio-cultural challenges facing women and women artists in particular, it is also a courageous journey back into a childhood marked by obvious trauma. Great art often involves the perilous journey into one’s past to uncover buried truths and initiate the healing process, and Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is a genuine work of art by a passionate, talented and independent woman who had the courage to face her demons and the creative talent to transform that journey into a thing of beauty.