new(ish) albums update: Neko Case, Fiery Furnaces
Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood — Like many others, I first became aware of Case as the only remotely soulful element in the otherwise completely plastic sheen of the too-clever-by-half New Pornographers. I have some sympathy for the power-pop collective's goals (and I may actually end up liking A.C. Newman's solo work any minute now), but mostly the super-busy songs struck me as needlessly complicated in a lot of cases; without Case's belted vocals, they might've been a lost cause entirely. Of course, in the indie-rock sphere being a good technical singer (in the "American Idol" sense) is mostly a pointless cause — which is obviously a large part of indie rock's democratic appeal — but if you can actually sing in addition to writing killer songs (as opposed to being on "Idol," where singing means a multi-octave range of shit) you're almost unstoppable.
On Fox Confessor, which critical consensus seems to agree is a major breakthrough for Case, thoughtful, complicated songwriting never takes a backseat to Case's vocals, stunning though they are. The opening trio of songs is especially potent. "Margaret vs. Pauline" is a winding, seemingly easy shuffle of a song with piano solos on the fringes from The Band's Garth Hudson which — like much of the album — makes what's extremely difficult seem effortless. The melody is laid-back, but the lyrics bitterly contrast the two girls: "One left a sweater sitting on the train/and the other lost three fingers at the cannery."
Next comes lead single "Star Witness," which is impressive both for nailing the bitterness of a desperate relationship between two needy souls (a come-on like "Hey pretty baby come get high with me/We can stay at my sister's if we say we'll watch the baby" is especially heartwrenching) and because — according to a Case interview on pitchfork — the song is actually about her witnessing a boy shot to death in front of her in a misplaced instance of gang violence. I didn't know this for the first month of listening to the song, which now seems almost unbearably sad: the song's title actually makes sense, and the line "There's glass in my thermos and blood on my jeans" isn't just a testament to drunk partying but something far worse.
Coming on the tail of these two songs is "Hold On, Hold On," which proves that Case understands promiscuity all-too-well. "I leave the party at 3 a.m./Alone, thank God," she notes. I wish I'd had this song around senior year of high school, when it might've leavened some of my spring-semester embarassment, or at least offered a sympathetic response.
The rest of the album is slightly more challenging to get into, at least at first: there's two songs that are just a minute-plus, the production can be dense and obfuscatory (particularly w/regard to the guitars), and the lyrics remain largely oblique. But Fox Confessor rewards close repeated listening more than any other album this year, mashing rock guitars and string arrangements with its alt-country foundation. The results are both modest and stunning. As of now, this is the Album of the Year.
Fiery Furnaces, Bitter Tea — I don't have much to say about this album, partially because the Furnaces seem to invite so much exhaustive comment that anything I have to say is redundant. For my money, this is the Furnaces' most accessible album yet — even more so than EP — partially because Matthew Friedberger has quelled his meaningless, inexplicable obsession with pointless alliteration, and partially because there's more hooks than ever and less pure noise freak-outs. Of course, "normal" for the Fiery Furnaces is still way out in the country away from everyone else, which is a good thing: they're the token weird band that I'm really into (a role the annoying Deerhoof increasingly seem to be filling in a lot of people's lives; WTF?). There's plenty of backwards vocals, and the lyrics that are comprehensible are suspiciously obsessed with the workings of big-business (maybe an ironic reflection of the Furnaces' knowledge that they'll never hit it big); there's also squelchy techno beats from hell while Eleanor gets kidnapped by rogue CPAs ("They told me they wanted to balance my checkbook" has never sounded more sinister) and disco drums in the most inappropriate places. (None of the drums here are natural; everything's panned left and right ceaselessly.) The results are fascinating, but not as frustratingly, intimidatingly digressive as Blueberry Boat. Also features their first completely straightforward song (even "Here Comes The Summer" had weird guitars), "Benton Harbor Blues Again," which is lovely melancholy that could fit it on Beck's Mutations without anyone blinking an eye.