People fall over themselves trying to put Neko Case’s powerful voice into words. It’s nearly impossible to do justice to her arresting lyrics. Every synonym for weather systems and acts of god have been applied to her alongside all the typical sobriquets that get tossed at women who manage to do their own thing in the music industry. They all fall short of telling the whole story.
Case had a troubled upbringing that could have (and perhaps should have) ended badly, much like many of the characters in her songs. She escaped a drug-filled life on the streets of Tacoma out of sheer spite, fled to art school in Canada, and found a sort of salvation in punk rock. She drummed in Canadian punk outfits before taking the mic for her debut album, 1997’s The Virginian. That was filled with country standards, covers and a few roughly hewn originals, and holds only a fleeting glimpse of her talent and prowess.
This list is filled with songs from the next five studio albums (and one live album), and it also overlooks any covers (of which there are many wonderful examples) and all of Case’s other musical projects like The New Pornographers (her vocals are featured on many songs across five albums) or her work with the Sadies, the Dodos, and a heap of other acts. This is a list of 12 original Neko Case songs that offer a look at the breadth of her talents, from her achingly emotive vocals to her deft lyrical compositions.
The lead single off of Case’s latest album, “Man” borrows some power pop cues from The New Pornographers and features a fuzzed-out guitar part played by guitarist/songwriter M. Ward. The song offers a glimpse of what a Neko Case record could sound like in an alternative universe where she tried to make chart-topping albums; it’s catchy, lean and lyrically biting. “Man” demonstrates Case’s increasing comfort with telling her own story in her songs instead of building characters to inhabit her lyrics, and even if it seems somewhat out of place on the album, it’s the kind of song that burrows deep into the folds of your brain and won’t let go.
Off the live album of the same name, “The Tigers Have Spoken” is an early example of Case’s use of animals as characters, and it is not a happy song. But Case and her band plow through the dark subject matter (how a circus tiger driven mad by captivity gets euthanized) and as the song swells to a crescendo, Case adds a sweet lyrical note that contrasts with the dark reprieve of “they shot that tiger on his chain.” The recording offers a taste of how Case tackles her material in concert, in which the arrangements are often quite different than the album recordings and often put a heavier emphasis on back up vocalist Kelly Hogan and the pair of guitarists.
Case often writes about animals, and she also loves to sing about her adopted home of the Pacific Northwest. “Red Tide” combines both, as Case chronicles the ways that animals and humans collide on the shores of the Puget Sound. The song is packed with vivid imagery based around the sulfuric smell of the ritual algae in bloom. She strikes her signature lyrical balance in tune, literal meaning and symbolic heft getting equal share, and that’s a characteristic that prevents her songs from getting stale even after years of listening. There’s always some nuance left to uncover for the critical ear (or you can just sing along and not give it another thought).
The 2006 breakout album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood was the result of a songwriter and vocalist who found new comfort with her instruments. The songs are more personal and more nuanced, and Case was clearly leaving the punk and country sounds behind. Around the time of the album’s release, Case performed on Austin City Limits, and that show is a striking document of a fully realized transformation from indie favorite to iconoclast. It sounds like hyperbole but if you listen to the show (or watch it) it is difficult to deny that they captured a special bit of chemistry on that stage. Case runs through a dozen originals and a few stunning covers and the songs all shine bright and clear with her brilliance still undimmed by ego. It’s a breathtaking example of her power, and “Favorite”—originally off of The Tigers Have Spoken is a highlight that opens the set.
Off Case’s sophomore album Furnace Room Lullaby, which straddles the alt country twang of her debut and the more indie rock sounds featured on her breakthrough albums, “Mood to Burn Bridges” marries a jangly electric guitar with a punk rock tempo and attitude. The song begs to be cued up on the jukebox of a smoky dive bar (that’s true of nearly all of the album), and by the time the song crashes into the bridge Case gets a chance to unleash her more soulful vocal styling. It’s an early look at the power, clarity and emotion that now defines her.
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood from 2006 was a breakout album for Case and an unbridled tour-de-force of songwriting and vocal power. It is, more than any of her other LPs, wall-to-wall with incredible compositions and performances. “Maybe Sparrow” is pleading and melancholy but not morose (even with the plaintive strings), and it features Dexter Romweber of psychobilly pioneers the Flat Duo Jets on guitar. A favorite at live shows where bandmate Jon Rauhouse typically bangs out accompaniment on a banjo, the rendition on the Austin City Limits live recording is essential listening.
While The Worse Things Get was a commercial success and earned plenty of critical praise, it’s hard to deny that it is an uneven offering (especially when held up to the masterpiece of Fox Confessor). The album takes a few tracks to really get moving, and there are a few songs that pull the energy of the album down just as it gets up steam. But if there are some valleys in the track list, they just make the album’s peaks seem to soar that much higher. “Bracing for Sunday” starts off sounding like a barroom recollection of good times, then, the sax (played by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos) kicks in before the second verse and Case confesses, “I only ever held one love / her name was Mary Anne / she died having a child by her brother / he died because I murdered him.” It gets dark quickly, yet, melody buoys the grim subject matter and keeps listeners’ feet tapping as they root for the “Friday night girl,” even as she shakes with uncertainty in her bed. It’s another example of how Case can slip gritty and often grim stories into catchy tunes like a dog owner hiding a bitter pill in a piece of cheese. The saxophone is a striking contrast to her vocals, something Case should feature in her arrangements more often.
A southern gothic rendition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Tell Tale Heart” with a murderous woman at the center, the title track to Case’s second LP was her first experiment with the murder ballad, and it is chilling. “All night all I hear / all I hear is your heart / how come / how come,” she nearly shrieks to begin the song before the guitars build their mournful foundation (once again, the ACL performance is particularly affecting as the glassy pedal guitar work of Jon Rauhouse anchors Case’s croon). In the hand of nearly any other vocalist the song would sound silly, but the weight and emotion that Case imbues into the ballad transforms a maudlin sentiment into a desperate fury.
There are not a lot of love songs in Case’s catalog, though “The Pharaohs” comes close. Featuring Visqueen’s Rachel Flotard on backup vocals and The Band’s Garth Hudson on the organ, the song teases a happy tail about young lovers before derailing into a nearly inscrutable morass of depressive thoughts. Lyrically it is more obtuse than most of Case’s songs, but she delivers the tricky lines with such force and power that it doesn’t even matter. “I listened in when you thought you were alone,” she warbles, “calling the sphinx on a tornado’s phone / who knew what you meant / I only heard what I wanted.” She could sing names out of the phonebook with that voice and still sell out shows.
A parable based on her grandmother’s tales of Ukrainian relatives who succumbed to insanity in the old country, in “Dirty Knife” features some of Case’s most strikingly visual lyrics. “Cascading letters pool on the stairs / the grass is high, the cats are wild / you can’t even touch the tip of their tails,” give you just a hint of the desperation that surrounds the song’s central character, and as the creeping insanity overtakes the woodsman, the song swells and Case concludes her story with two verses in Ukrainian. It’s a fable with a grim ending that’s delivered with a sweetness that’s further underscored by doleful strings and upright bass. In Case’s catalog filled with more vivid imagery than a year’s worth of National Geographic magazines, “Dirty Knife” is a widescreen Technicolor spectacle that you won’t soon forget.
Perhaps the most beautiful song ever sung about a monstrous serial killer and the near countless victims of his violence, “Deep Red Bells” is a lament for the dozens of women killed by the Green River Killer who terrorized the interstates around Case’s then home of Tacoma, Washington. Calling a song “haunting” is trite these days, but in the case of “Deep Red Bells” it is all too applicable. When Case was eight, she carried a steak knife on her walks to school for fear that the killer would attack her, and she told the the A.V. Club, “I think about [that fear] every time I walk somewhere by myself, which is a lot.” With “Deep Red Bells” she turns this fear into one-sided conversation with “those murdered on interstate,” and she transfers that lingering unease to the listener.
Case’s albums get more autobiographical with each release as she gets more comfortable writing about herself, and “Hold On, Hold On” was an early example of a song with Case herself set as the central character. The lead single off Fox Confessor is a tale of a woman who won’t let anyone get too close, and while it may not be the most delicate or nuanced track, it became the hook that caught countless new fans for Case. It’s equal parts jangly country tune and driving indie rock confessional, and it has all the elements that make Case’s songs so beguiling. There are the two guitars—one electric, one pedal steel—reverb-drenched and twisting around and through the haunting backup vocals while Case performs with an unapologetic lyrical frankness in her incomparable shimmering alto.