“I’m a dying breed, who still believes,” Neko Case sings on her new album Blacklisted, “Hunted by American dreams.” This supremely talented siren could have easily taken the safe route, singing more commercial-sounding fare under the the getting-vaguer-by-the-minute alt-country label, like, say, Ryan Adams, but like fellow Chicagoans Wilco, she has chosen instead to veer off the slick pavement of mainstream music, and barrel down the more unpredictable dirt roads heading off towards the horizon. However, unlike Wilco, who have taken their trademark country-rock sound and brought innovative new sounds to the genre, Case has hopped into the Wayback machine, plundered the vaults of Patsy Cline, Ketty Lester, and legendary Nashville producer Owen Bradley, and has returned with an album steeped in old Nashville tradition, but with a healthy dose of her own punk influences.
Recorded in Tucson, Arizona, with co-producers Darryl Neudorf (who also co-produced 2000’s Furnace Room Lullaby) and Craig Schumacher, and featuring such guest musicians as Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb, Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico, Dallas Good (The Sadies), country chanteuse Kelly Hogan, and the inimitable Mary Margaret O’Hara, Blacklisted is a 39-minute exercise in dark, brooding atmospherics. Sometimes feeling as chilly as a desert night, sometimes as warm as an overcrowded, smoky bar, this album creates an overall feeling of dark, seductive uneasiness, with the ultra-low thrum of upright bass and pump organ sounding like a gathering storm, and the off-kilter, Angelo Badalamenti-syle guitar flourishes making you expect a backwards-talking dwarf to pop out from behind the curtains. In the end, though, it’s Case herself who makes Blacklisted so tantalizing.
That voice. It’s that unmistakable, room-silencing, untrained, powerful, slightly nasal voice of hers that spins the web: when you hear it, you can’t get enough of it. On Blacklisted, as opposed to her two previous solo albums, Case shows even more restraint than before; her voice is the key to the music, but she’s not here to show off. She can sound wistful (“Wish I Was the Moon”), paranoid (“Things That Scare Me”), menacing (“Look For Me (I’ll Be Around)”), melancholy (“Pretty Girls”), and ferocious (Runnin’ Out of Fools”), able to change the mood in the blink of an eye. The Owen Bradley-style production, which places the emphasis on heavy natural reverb on the vocal tracks over instrumental tracks that sound recorded in an empty hall, fits Case’s old-fashioned style perfectly. However, unlike someone like Patsy Cline, Case is unwilling to fall to pieces; she has both feet firmly planted, ready to give the finger to anyone who’ll cross her.
Still, if given just a token listen and treated like nothing more than background music, the true depth of Blacklisted is missed. The one aspect of the record that marks a stylistic quantum leap from Furnace Room Lullaby is the quality of Case’s lyrics. Her words evoke thoughts of abstract, eccentric images of Americana, a poetic equivalent of photographer Robert Frank’s famous collection The Americans, with many entrancing, stream-of-consciousness lines that would make Jack Kerouac proud. Full of verses of pure, raw beauty and emotion, this isn’t your typical, touchy-feely Nashville country-for-the-masses. All it takes is one listen to the opening verse of the album to notice the difference: “Florescent lights engage/Like birds frying on a wire/Same birds that followed me to school when I was young/Were they trying to tell me something?/Were they telling me to run?”. “Deep Red Bells” is filled with sensory imagery (“It looks a lot like engine oil, and tastes like being poor and small/And Popsicles in summer”), as is “Stinging Velvet” (“Water through my lashes looked just like Christmas lights”). Surreal musings in the title track (“Do the trees bend down/Fold their limbs ‘round you?”) and in “Ghost Wiring (“Your ghost is a lightshow at night/On the Grand Coulee Dam”) are both powerful and original, full of heart and devoid of any pretense.
But on an album, the lyrics don’t mean squat if the music doesn’t hold up, and the tunes heard on Blacklisted do the job just fine. “Tightly” sways gently, as if guided by a gentle breeze, with former Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet guitarist Brian Connelly providing shimmering vibrato baritone guitar that sets a gorgeous mood. The leisurely honky-tonk twang of “Stinging Velvet” is about as upbeat as the album gets, while at the same time, Jon Rauhouse’s slide Hawaiian guitar work sets an aptly regretful tone. “Wish I Was the Moon” is the album’s prettiest ballad, and the airborne musings of “Ladypilot” the most ethereal track. Standing out over all the songs is the haunting “Pretty Girls”, which appeared over a year ago as part of the soundtrack to the Sam Raimi film The Gift. Over a 6-8 rhythm that’s enhanced by banjo, saw (played by Case), and accents of discordant electric guitar, Case sings to women who have thrown their lives away (“Don’t let them tell you you’re nothing”). Here the music and lyrics mesh the best, as Case hauntingly intones, “Wind your flimsy blue gowns tight around you / ‘Round curves so comely and sinister,” before closing with the image of flying away from the world: “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.”
Two cover songs are included; an extremely creepy version of the classic stalker ballad “Look For Me (I’ll Be Around)”), and an extremely angry version of Elvis Costello’s “Runnin’ Out of Fools”, on which Case displays the full power of her voice. As good as the covers are, it’s Case’s original songs that are the real winners. Furnace Room Lullaby had her collaborating with other songwriters on every track, but on Blacklisted, aside from one track, it’s all Neko. Her albums have matured exponentially with every release, and with Blacklisted, an album that will get your blood pumping and give you goosebumps at the same time, Neko Case emerges as a true original. On the song “Stinging Velvet”, Case sings, “Cold and shivering warm.” I couldn’t describe this album more perfectly.