Ace songwriter, musician, producer and member of The New Pornographers, Neko Case has enlisted the help of Bjorn Yttling of Peter, Bjorn and John to co-produce her new album, Hell-On. She’s called in a few favours for guest appearances by the looks of things too - Joey Burns (Calexico), Beth Ditto, AC Newman, KD Lang and Laura Veirs are just some of the people adding their talents to the record. 180g black vinyl 2LP and CD on Anti.
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Neko Case has long been eschewing her alt-country tagline in favour of music weirder and wilder. Mixing a primordial understanding of pop music with oblique lyricism and a love of sonic detours, she delivered ‘The Worse Things Get...’ as her best ever record. Its follow up, ‘Hell-on’, is a similar blend of her experimental tendencies and beguiling hooks; it does not do the same things, but approaches similar ideas, proving her master of a brand new indie pop mystery that’s as fun and fleeting as it is earth-scorched.
Though these songs continue to prove Case an elusive, sideways glancing songwriter, they seem to have been wired to their optimum pop settings; “Bad Luck” is chock full of the usual broken, inside-joke missives (i.e. “embargo is love’s waiting room”), but they’re told through apologetically simple choruses, and colourful melodic throughlines. The whole thing sounds like a party, in places like this, Case at her brightest and most freewheeling.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Case record without purposeful misdirections and luls in pace; her duet with Eric Bachmann on “Curse of the 1-5 Corridor” immediately sees her substitute the fun and spread her high and wild poetry over a sparse, evacuated ballad. It pairs Case’s vulnerability with ferocity and fearlessness, offering her usual brilliant self-examinations (“I fucked every man I wanted to be”). “Oracle of the Maritimes” is a lushly produced, acoustically centred rock song that never quite gives into its climax, instead dangling its balladry off the edge of all things.
The record’s opening title track might be the biggest aesthetic surprise, using playfully chiming percussion to set in place a bluesy stage tune. It is typical of Case’s disregard for how we, as listeners, listen to and explain away records: as this sound with that theme. Instead, Case transcends typical narratives and weaves through the estranged sounds that can make sense of her words. They're mottos and mantras, but not as we know them.
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