I returned from a month long stay in Spain a couple of days ago, and for most of the duration of this trip I had extremely limited internet access. The first couple days of my trip were extremely busy, and without intending it, I didn't listen to any pop music. Then I decided I would see how long I could go without listening to pop music. I only lasted about 4 days before I caved, and I found myself listening to a lot of Neko Case. I’m not exactly sure what pulled me to her music, but I think it speaks to power of her songs that I chose her to break my pop music fast. I ended up listening to, and then relistening to, her last 4 studio LPs (i.e. the Neko albums I own). This put me in a list-making mood, which I had to suppress for about 3 weeks. Now that I’ve got some time and prolonged internet access, it is my pleasure to present my top 3 Neko Case songs (as a solo artist, no New Pornos or Maow):
3. Twist the Knife
Off of Case's 2nd album, The Furnace Room Lullaby, 'Twist the Knife' sees her in full-on country soul ballad mode, belting some of the most masochistic lyrics ever put to tape: "Carefully, quietly, you took what's young from me/ Didn't deserve it, I gave it away/ Cowardly, thoughtlessly, you walk away from me/ And I'll tear my heart out to save you the day." The self-effacing lyrical content of this song would set the tone for much of Case's songwriting as her career moved forward. In addition, it boasts a killer guitar solo midway through.
2. A Widow’s Toast
This track is slotted towards the middle of Case's spectacularly spooky The Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, and album that saw her branching out lyrically into allegorical storytelling, and sonically into unusual arrangements and song structures. No song better epitomized these stylistic explorations than 'A Widow's Toast,' a thrillingly stripped down ode to loss and memory. The song is practically a capella, with only a faint background drone and the occasional guitar strum or piano note to accompany Case's piercing verses: "Better times collide with now, the tears were warm I feel them still/ They heat to vapor and disperse/ And cloud our eyes with weary glaze." A masterpiece of atmosphere, and one of the most purely beautiful songs I have ever heard.
1. Deep Red Bells
'Deep Red Bells,' off of Case's third album Blacklisted, is a fantastic song in its own right, but set against the context of Case's life story, it takes on a whole new meaning. The lyrics concern the Green River serial killer who took the lives of at least 48 women, mostly prostitutes, in the Seattle area throughout the 80s and 90s. Case has sighted the fear she felt as a young girl living on the streets of Tacoma, Washington during this time as her inspiration for writing the song, and nothing else she has done has so vividly evoked the sad vulnerability of her childhood. "The red bells beckon you to ride/ A handprint on the driver's side/ It looks a lot like engine oil/ And tastes like being poor and small/ And popsicles in summer," she sings. The first several verses of the song are accompanied by a swampy riff and mournful slide guitar, but the songs coda picks up to a rockabilly pace, as Neko asks "Does your soul cast about like an old paper bag/ Past empty lots, and early graves?/ For those like you who lost their way/ Murdered on the interstate/ While the red bells rang like thunder." What are the 'deep red bells'? Like much of Case's imagery, it's difficult to tell, but chances are that they represent something achingly personal, and terrifying to their author. Case has the remarkable ability to project personal emotions in her songwriting, and 'Deep Red Bells' conveys the fear and loneliness of a damaged childhood with painful clarity.