Thursday, February 4, 2010

The perfect voice of Neko Case

The most vulnerable time of day for me is between 6.30 and 7.00 in the morning, when I am driving into Geelong from the sleepy and daggy but deeply loved St Leonards, with 3PBS FM’s Breakfast Spread blasting through the speakers of my teensy-weensy car and inevitably presenting me with something which, Terminator-like, destroys whatever resolve I had had, not more than half an hour earlier, to buy no CDs today.

A couple of days ago, the deathly blow to that resolve was dealt yet again by Jenny O, with a track from a voice that she described as “perfect”. I had reached that conclusion myself, well before she had announced who it was – a voice that straddled all the passion of music and all the music of passion, a voice that cried and ached but stayed on the note, a voice with both heart and guts, a voice that knew how to be susceptible and strong at the same time, a voice that never wavered and yet adapted to whatever emotional demands the music placed upon it, a voice that could wander through any landscape and still be at home. The voice of Neko Case.

The song that Jenny O played was the title track from Black Listed, a country-blues type of song, with hints of modern rock peeping through the homestead curtains, inviting you to places where electric guitars and acoustic banjos take each other by the hand and dirty dance together. It’s spooky and sordid music, music that belongs to seedy bars late at night, where people get maudlin together and talk about their empty lives, and dying.

You might not expect the mix of musical threads and strands that go to make up this album to be able to be turned into the striking, beautiful, tapestry with which Neko Case presents us here. It’s like she gets bold colours that, in other hands, would clash badly, and then knits or hammers them together, whichever is needed at the time, with little speckles of softness here and there, and ends up with something both audacious and vulnerable.

There’s the sweet and easy blues of ‘Runnin’ Out of Fools’, peppered with modern day electronics, and blended with spongy country harmonies that could have come forty years ago from the Carter family; there’s the dark and uncanny ‘Deep Red Bells’, with its percussive guitar, against electronics and vocals that howl at the moon; the frighteningly good banjo plucking in the opening ‘Things that scare me’, and the soft, domestic comfort of ‘Look for me (I’ll be around)’, with its gentle, swaying beat, and warmly simple guitar melodies that invite you home.

It’s a tough and scary world out there. And here, on Black Listed, Neko Case makes you feel you are in safe hands when she leads you through it – safe because you know she knows its dark little alleys and laneways so well; safe because her gutsy, beautiful voice makes you feel both protected and comforted.

Thanks, as always, to PBS for filling the airwaves with such fantastic music.

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