Neko Case - The Worse Things Get... | Album Review | By Volume

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Neko Case

The Worse Things Get...

Finding cracks in the wooden fence between here and there.

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Author: on September 8, 2013
September 3, 2013

When I saw Neko Case opening for The National a few years back it was at the Air Canada Center in Toronto. As Matt Berninger pointed out midway through The National’s set, it was a ridiculous venue and whoever decided to book the show in an NHL arena was either oblivious to the artists on the bill (Wye Oak began the evening) or were way more concerned about the dollar dollar bills instead of the acoustic setting. The National, oddly enough, actually thrived in the atmosphere—once they convinced the security guards to let people out of their seats and onto the floor, that is. Neko Case, however, did not fare so well in the surroundings. Her troupe of merry bluesmen and musical journeyman, all wonderfully capable musicians, looked a little bit like wearing running shoes to a wedding. But unlike that fashion taboo, Case’s awkwardness was not her fault at all. And this is an important point: while the two douchebags behind me derided Neko Case and her band for being “boring” and “stiff” (because they were obviously the absolute pinnacle gatekeepers of taste) they were kind of missing the mark.

Neko Case’s music isn’t built for arena sized spectacles; hers is a finely nuanced articulation of the minutiae that art encounters in the borderlands between the explored and the unexplored. Stylistically there is not much difference from one album to the next in Neko Case’s career, but that is a wholly different thing from being “samey” or boring and stagnant. More than that, it suggests that in Case’s music style is a medium for exploring the very finest of details lost in the most remote corners of a particular idea. In other words, the awkwardly titled The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (abbreviated to The Worse Things Get from here on in, for our collective sanity) does not distinguish itself from predecessors Middle Cyclone or Fox Confessor Brings the Flood stylistically. And that’s perfectly fine by me. Right from the off it’s clear which path Neko Case and her band decide to take; opener “Wild Creatures” sways out of the gate much like Middle Cyclone’s wonderful “This Tornado Loves You” did and immediately you’re drawn into that world so well composed by Case; it’s a world that can be boozy and lush or hauntingly sweet or fiercely visceral, with each atmosphere controlled by the choice of intonation in Case’s remarkably versatile voice.

When it comes right down to it, her voice is the ultimate instrument in her music, and she knows that. But where some other artists falter in the face of such enigmatic vocal prowess by either compensating too much (like, say, Florence Welch’s Ceremonials in its over-the-top bombast — I liked that album, by the way) or, conversely, by compensating too little, Neko Case composes wonderful songs in which the instrumentation never feels like a backdrop. This ain’t no karaoke: take a look at the horns on the excellent closer “Ragtime,” or the guitar punch on the riotous destruction of patriarchy that is “Man.” The music is capable and always just as interesting as Case’s voice, but still it is the vocals that inevitably take center stage. And as always, Case passes with flying colours. She has such a great mix of soft sweetness, a tinge of drawl, and a bit of smoky throatiness and it gets the chance to shine throughout The Worse Things Get. The bizarre a capella “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” a throwback to some of the odder moments on Fox Confessor, allows Case’s voice to sprawl and strut its stuff and so despite being a bit of an oddity, it works quite well in the end.

But, of course, as I have tempered before, there is a difference between close examinations of a fully realized idea, which is what I think Neko Case continues to do with The Worse Things Get, and becoming stagnant, lacking in new ideas that add to a stylistic and rhetorical continuum. So, in other words, beyond formalistic markers, Neko Case isn’t standing still; the addition of horns and a few more musical tricks add a slightly different layer to The Worse Things Get compared to Middle Cyclone and Fox Confessors’ brand of bluesy folk rock. And lyrically this is the fiercest Case we have come across yet: returning to that oddity “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” the rather jolting proclamation of “get the fuck away from me / Why don’t you ever shut up,” is certainly quite visceral, and there is a tenable jadedness, scrutiny, and anger running throughout “Man”—all of which is finely nuanced and well thought out. So when someone argues that an artist doesn’t evolve, I usually take a skeptical step back. They could be right, certainly, but on the other hand perhaps they’re not listening close enough. Perhaps the artist just isn’t done combing certain aspects of a certain boundary yet. In the case of The Worse Things Get, Neko Case isn’t quite done finding all the shapes and cracks in that wooden fence standing as boundary between the here and there. And in the meantime she continues to uncover lovely little details in the places she has already visited, remembering different little colours and shapes.

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