Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Case for the Cases

It’s possible that there are people named Case who are tone deaf and who couldn’t put together a rhyming couplet involving the words “moon” and “June.” But I haven’t found them. So here’s a handy rule-of-thumb: if you find an album by anyone with the last name of Case, buy it. Here are three reasons why, from best known to least known.

1. Neko Case

Neko Case is the best musical redhead in the world (sorry, Bonnie Raitt; Danny Bonaduce, you weren’t even in the running). Possessing a voice that is a force of nature, equal parts Patsy Cline and Patty Griffin, Neko could sing the Tacoma phone book and I’d be happy. But she’s also a wonderfully evocative and enigmatic songwriter. Last year’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood was one of the most widely hailed albums of the year, and with good reason. Her songs are as memorable (and frequently as inscrutable) as the title would suggest.

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

That’s how one of them starts out, before evolving into a very non-linear fever dream. It’s country music from the Twilight Zone, where all the truckstop jukeboxes play Hank Williams and mid-‘60s Bob Dylan, and where the nightmares roll off the tongue like poetry. Her previous albums The Virginian, Furnace Room Lullaby, and Blacklisted, are just as good. And don’t miss her in The New Pornographers, the best, quirkiest power pop band going, and whose new album Challenger is my most anticipated release of 2007.

2. Peter Case

I’ve been writing about Peter Case for Paste Magazine. And that’s allowed me to plunder an extensive back catalogue that is an embarrassment of riches. I started with Peter’s old early ‘80s band The Plimsouls, who made great roots rock, and one certifiable jangly guitar classic in “A Million Miles Away.” Then I moved on to the vast solo catalogue, where Case occasionally rocks, but more frequently alternates between early ‘60s Bob Dylan folkie protest mode and mid-‘70s confessional singer/songwriter mode. He’s adept at both, but I’m particularly drawn to the confessional songs, where Peter displays a knack for great metaphors, and a penchant for nailing the particular malaise of our times:

Mixed up kid is here to join the crowd
The ones who only fit where they’re not allowed
You’re out on the streets and feelin’ blue
Travellin’ light
With a hole in your soul that the wind blows through

Then there’s “Cold Trail Blues,” an existentialist crisis disguised as a deceptively lovely folk song, wherein Peter expresses the conundrum of every person who has ever wavered in his or her faith; when it’s 3:00 a.m. and you’re wide awake, and the prayers and unanswered questions are pinballing off the ceiling, and you’re faced with the certain knowledge that the person you are is not the person you intended to be:

It’s almost like you never came
I swear I almost lost your name
Once you meant so much to me
I thought your love would set me free

Cold trail blues
I could use
Any kind of sign
That you’re still on the line

He’s a great, criminally ignored songwriter, and his new album Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John, due out in a couple weeks, is ongoing proof that all you need is one guy, a guitar, and a batch of songs that will break your heart.

3. Ann and Phil Case

Ann and Phil Case live outside of Dayton, Ohio, where they work regular jobs, go to church, and live the shy, retiring midwestern life. Occasionally they venture out and record some of the most breathtaking old-time country duet records you’ll ever hear. They’ve just released The Old Step Stone, so there are four of those records now, and each one is chock full of Phil’s delightfully unassuming guitar, mandolin and clawhammer banjo work, Ann’s gorgeously soaring folk soprano, a wagon load of angelic harmonies, and songs that would have fit in perfectly on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

Taking their cues from The Carter Family, The Delmore Brothers, and The Blue Sky Boys, Ann and Phil harmonize like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and make music that conjures up images of dirt roads and Model Ts, general stores and revival tent meetings. They sing old hymns, murder ballads, and lovesick laments, almost all of them from early 20th century Appalachia. And yes, they do it as well as Gillian and David, and yes, that’s high praise indeed. Don’t look for them at Wal-Mart or Best Buy, but by all means look for them, starting right here.

1 comment:

Adventures with Us said...

I am anticipating this record. It seems he has been realy hit and miss with me since "Torn Again". There have been some good moments. How do you rank his new record? Will it stand as one of his classics in your opinion? My favorite of his is still "Put Down The Gun" off the "Blue Post-Modern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar" Album....

thanks for reminding me that it is coming out....