Neko Case’s voice is a force to be reckoned with. Just ask Carl Newman, lead singer and chief songwriter for Vancouver’s New Pornographers. Back in 1997, he recruited the American alt-country balladeer, then in Canada attending art school, as a guest vocalist for his burgeoning supergroup, and he has since put her voice to excellent use in the Pornographers’ power-pop.
Nine years later and still a vocal powerhouse, Case has markedly refined her songwriting talents to match. Nevertheless, 2006’s “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” is ultimately less remarkable than it ought to be. Both lyrically and musically, “Fox Confessor” takes a turn for the obtuse, leaving listeners aching for the relatively more straightforward songs on Case’s prior studio effort, 2002’s “Blacklisted.” The twelve tracks dive into allegory sometimes too eagerly, and Case double-tracks her vocals or brings in similar sounding backup vocalists too often, and so on, until the album seems muddled. It’s not boring, but it’s certainly too disconnected from the world of emotion to grip listeners tightly. Like a second-rate modernist text, Case’s newest album is worth a listen but far from indispensable.
The album’s best moments often feature Case’s stunningly beautiful upper register. Like Derek Zoolander’s “Magnum,” the sweet high end of Case’s range appears rarely but never fails to stop listeners in their tracks. When Case adds this heartrending extra bit of oomph, as she does most markedly in the lilting “Star Witness” she hits on all cylinders and delivers on the promise of her previous work.
Unfortunately, the rest of the album sometimes struggles to keep up. “Lion’s Jaws” is frankly overabundant: The two guitar lines dampen each other, the hi-hat only irritates over the simple drumbeat, and the vocal reverb is completely unnecessary. Thus the piano and the strings, which might otherwise have imbued needed emotion, get lost in the mix. The messy sum is a distracting arrangement culminating in an incredibly weak, Aimee Mann-quoting climax about “momentum,” something the track markedly lacks.
Other production missteps are evident in the confusion of cello and Bulgarian lyrics in “Dirty Knife.” Meant to imply foreboding in Case’s tale of a madman, these parts are at best ineffective and at worst horribly cliched.
Happily, none of the other tracks dip nearly as low as those two. Sure, the true glue of Case’s adaptation of the traditional gospel hymn “John Saw That Number” — the faux-improvisational organ courtesy Garth Hudson of The Band — doesn’t even enter the mix until a full minute has passed. But once Hudson’s dancing keys kick in, the track bursts forward, urging on the album’s best backup vocals towards a suitably hopping conclusion. Case’s organ arrangements also shine on the brief, abstract gem “A Widow’s Toast” and the skilled opener “Margaret vs. Pauline.”
Yet the distance of the oblique narratives at times softens the emotional impact in ways not seen in Case’s previous work. Though hardly as academic as, say, Destroyer’s “Rubies,” “Fox Confessor” is bereft of straightforward ballads like the poignant “If You Knew,” one of four then-new songs on Case’s 2004 live album “The Tigers Have Spoken.” Case is at her most personal in “The Needle Has Landed,” her ambivalent ode to her Tacoma, Washington hometown, but the personal nature of this track, the album’s closer, hardly makes up for the comparable lack thereof earlier in the album.
In short, Neko Case’s new album is never straight-up boring but certainly seems longer than its 35-minute runtime, and not in a good way. “Fox Confessor” is sure to please fans new to alt-country, and the album will hardly damage Case’s reputation. Yet despite her powerful voice, her songs don’t leave the kind of impression that would make this album truly memorable.