Neko Case will never use auto tune. Ever. She’ll tell you so herself. Her voice is too powerful a beast—deep and brutal and pining to tempt. The Alexandria-born, Tacoma-raised musician resents being pigeonholed. I’ve seen her style described as alt country (gross), indie rock and experimental. None alone are right. She’s some of each…and a bit of a noir poet.
Most of Case’s songs are dark and purposefully obscure. The woman has soul for miles. She prefers the message to be cryptic and the incidents blurred, so that you can fill in the pieces.
Narrowing down her top ten was akin to what I would imagine it feels like to separate orphaned siblings. I didn’t know where to begin. On top of the wall of sound, she weaves Ukrainian fairy tales into her work, has songs that would befit jihad missions (see “Lady Pilot”), and writes lyrics that command:
Come chain yourself ’round my ankle, you’ll see the world like a bird
Diving down low, flying up high, through all of these saccharine gutters we’ll ride
And I won’t say that I told you so
That said, I listened to builds and harmonies, tempos and reverb, pedal steel and strings. Then I scrapped all of it and went with my gut. I’m anxious to hear where you would agree and argue. So here goes…the ten Neko Case songs worth swooning over:
10. “This Tornado Loves You”
Tornado opens up Middle Cyclone (Neko’s latest album). It was inspired by a dream she had about a tornado frustrated because it couldn’t turn the pages of a book. It wanted to read. This song moves at a frenzied pace and introduces the force of nature that is the album’s theme. My love, I am the speed of sound. I left them motherless, fatherless. Their souls dangling inside-out from their mouths, but it’s never enough. Don’t you see? This tornado loves you. And I love the thought of carving your name across three counties to prove it.
9. “Mood to Burn Bridges”
This song, which sounds more country than most of her work, is off the early Furnace Room Lullaby album. It is so fired up, twanging all over the place in a celebration of shabby, small town life. It also shows Neko’s anti-conformist tendencies—both in tempo (she lets the hyper beat catch its breath a couple times) and in words. Don’t cross me on either a day, baby.
8. “Alone and Forsaken”
This list deserves a cover, and I chose Hank Williams and his crying whip-poor-wills. Neko’s take lets her deep voice linger, begging. Oh please understand. Live versions give Jon Rauhouse the attention he deserves on the pedal steel. In close contention was her cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me.” The pianos (21 of them!) are incredible.
A note on the video: I couldn’t find a Neko version of this, so you’re getting Hank Williams.
7. “John Saw That Number”
On 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Neko moved away from typical song structure. This jamboree is her rendition of a traditional Christian gospel tune. She breathes in the religious revelry while, I suspect, slinging tomatoes at it. Atheists and zealots alike can stomp their feet in praise. Wild honey, lord, wild honey.
6. “Vengeance Is Sleeping”
Stripped down, Vengeance isn’t much more than vocals and guitar—striking and raw. Neko sings from a dude’s point of view (not for the first time): You’re the one that I still miss, and it’s ruthless that it comes as no surprise. I’m not the man you think I am. Kelly Hogan’s voice joins hers at the end. Two delicate birds.
5. “Middle Cyclone”
What a lullaby…with a music box to boot. This title track is a waltzy love song. It sounds like a progression of “I Wish I Was the Moon,” which probably deserves a spot on this list (it was the first song of hers that caught me like a deer in headlights). There are some gorgeous lines in here too, with nice breaks:
I lie across the path waiting, just for the chance to be
A spider web, trapped in your lashes, for that
I would trade you my empire for ashes
But I choke it back, how much I need love
4. “Deep Red Bells”
This song casts a spell. It was inspired by Neko’s memories of growing up in the Seattle area when the Green River Killer was at large. Eek. It feels like thunder, especially the sound of her voice in the chorus. The transition at 2:49 turns what was once menacing into a rockabilly number. Does your soul cast about like an old paper bag? Past empty lots and early graves? The feeling of hope layered on top of sadness (or confusion) makes its way into a lot of her songs, but it’s particularly evident here.
3. “Star Witness”
Here is a tragic tune with lonesome strings. Loosely based on Neko witnessing the murder of a black boy in Chicago, it’s a salute to the innocent—dead and forgotten. Go on, go on, go scream and cry. You’re miles from where anyone will find you. Wolves linger in this song (in the lyrics and in metaphor), but they’re masked by the soft and easy drums. Animals, a common thread in Neko’s music, are a sly bunch.
2. “Prison Girls”
Holy hell, this is a soulful shade of blue. Neko says it came from a waking dream. The instruments and vocals trudge along in a trance, as if lugging sins. They make jail sound sinister in its beauty. I love your long shadows, and your gunpowder eyes. I could listen to that refrain forever.
1. “Maybe Sparrow”
Tragic little sparrow, you didn’t listen! And now what? You’ve left us all weeping.
Notes are hung so effortless
With the rise and fall of sparrow’s breast
It’s a drowning dive and back to the chorus
La de da de da de da
That last line reads so trivial, but it’s proof that music trumps lyrics to infinity. Its sound conjures up emotions that words can only aspire to affect…in vain. Just listen.