Besides having the sexiest snaggletooth in indie rock, Neko Case may be the scene’s hardest-working gal. She records and tours with Canuck ultrapoppers the New Pornographers; writes, records, and tours as a solo artist; and also finds time for the occasional side project (like her currently dormant duo with Carolyn Mark, the Corn Sisters). And she’s no one-trick pony; her majestically outsize voice, one of pop music’s best, blows up the Pornos’ ’80s-rock fantasies, her own country songs, or a cover by the Shangri-Las with equal power. But her fourth proper studio solo disc shows that for all her versatility, she has a singular vision when it comes to her own music. And Lordy, it is dark. One glimpsed it on her 1997 debut, The Virginian (back when the red-maned Case rocked a spit curl), a record that dropped ethereal, death-haunted love songs between more familiar honky-tonk exercises. And it came into focus on 2000’s Furnace Room Lullaby and 2002’s Blacklisted, increasingly self-composed sets of country-rock noir filled with the ghosts and corpses of doomed lovers. Tellingly, both CD covers show the artist dolled up and sprawled on the ground. (As Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris once sang, love hurts.)
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, as the title suggests, finds Case pushing her stopped-heart storytelling into the realm of myth, moving from “alt country” into the unmapped country that groups from the Band to Arcade Fire have explored. It’s Americana in the broadest sense, here drawing on old-time mountain music, urban honky-tonk, Southern R&B, Mexican blues, California psychedelia and surf balladry, gloomy parlor songs of the North, and immigrant folk tales — apparently couriered by Case’s Ukrainian relatives. But instead of sounding like a hodgepodge, it comes together in a gracefully Jungian sort of country music, with Case playing Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces in a black thrift-store dress and well-worn Tony Lamas.
Per usual, the singer works with a large cast based around her regular cohorts in the Sadies and Calexico — two bands who have left the alt-twang ghetto for richer, stranger places. Sixty-eight-year-old ex-Band keyboardist Garth Hudson is a notable addition. His piano flickers like a votive candle through “Star Witness,” the story of a survivor remembering a lover’s death that recalls “Long Black Veil,” the country classic covered by the Band (and Case herself). Blood stained and haunted, it defines her gothic-love-song aesthetic, which involves plumbing immeasurable pain with a voice that sounds indomitable. On the penultimate line, “Please, don’t let him die,” Case soars up on the first word as if it could yank her man’s soul back down from heaven.
Elsewhere, “Dirty Knife” conjures insanity with unhinged poesy (“So suddenly the madness came / With its whiskered, wolven, ether pangs”), and “Lion’s Jaws” evokes the sort of Southern white-girl soul both Cat Power and Jenny Lewis explore on their outstanding new CDs — a collective revival for which Shelby Lynne may bear some responsibility. “Maybe Sparrow,” with Hudson’s eddying organ lines, is one of many songs employing animals both for mythic power and because, one gets the sense, Case prefers them to people. Yet the bird here winds up dead too.
There’s something of a David Lynch vibe to all this, a surreal sense of timelessness occasionally broken by a mention of “television crews” or “Valium,” which shifts things back to where we live. At times you wish she’d wrap her pipes around something more up-tempo. But that would probably break the mood, and like the best goth, Fox Confessor‘s hyperbleakness ultimately winks at you. It begins with a song about how much easier the dead have it than we do (duh), but the music’s beauty casts an unmistakable vote for the pleasures of living. As Case sings at the end of the record, after making angel tears on a hammered dulcimer, “The needle has landed again / Let it play.”