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Neko Case’s voice and approach are so distinctive that I mostly think of her previous albums and continuing story. I hear many overtones of her side projects—Case/lang/Veirs and the New Pornographers included.
Having my morning coffee and listening to the rest of Case’s catalog.
A film that portrays a dark journey that comes out okay in the end. Apollo 13 springs to mind.
A natural lyricist with a knack for writing stylistically varied songs that showcase her ringing, ardent alto, Neko Case continues to venture on a singular musical journey that is never less than a fascinating listen.
On her seventh full-length studio album, Hell-On, she sounds like she’s acquired a new appreciation for collaborating. It could owe to the success of 2016’s Case/lang/Veirs,on which three established vocal and songwriting talents kept their egos in check for the sake of a group project. Here, Case enlists the beefiest guest list of any album in her career. The support cast includes lang, Veirs, and fellow New Pornographers member Carl Newman as well as Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees), Eric Bachmann (Archers of Loaf), Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing), and Joey Burns (Calexico).
Another audible influence relates to the series of extreme personal challenges Case overcame during the making of the 12-track effort. Plagued by stalkers, Case was rightfully horrified when her Vermont home caught fire and both her name and address appeared in the local paper. She ultimately told Pitchfork, “Every human being deserves to have things that are personal, because you can’t have mental health without that. Especially somebody with stalkers.”
Consequently, a thread of dread and flashes of human cruelty run through the record’s songs. In “My Uncle’s Navy,” Case remembers an uncle “not by blood,” and how “He pulled the heads off of garter snakes/I cried so helpless for those silent creatures.” And yet, the singer—who once posed on an album cover as an avenging angel hood ornament brandishing a sword—also bravely weaves lyrics out of autobiographical details, especially in “Curse of the I-5 Corridor,” where lines like “So I left home and I faked my I.D./I fucked every man that I wanted to be/I was so stupid then/Why should mystery give its life for me?” feel scarily personal.
In “Oracle of the Maritimes,” her dark pondering, expressed in the album’s most inventive imagery, comes across less as a confessional and more as a sweeping statement. “Sometimes I feel so ugly/I’m afraid/Worry nesting in my hair,” she sings. “Shedding like a Christmas tree/Surely there’s a real woman/Coming to erase me.”
Two upbeat pop-leaning numbers, “Last Lion of Albion” and “Bad Luck,” each co-written with guitarist Paul Rigby, bow as the kind of energetic tunes Case has always excelled at leading and putting over with the New Pornographers. “Albion” features backing vocals by lang and “Bad Luck” boasts backing vocals from a pair of Chicagoans, Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor. Not surprisingly, the album’s arrangements are layered, ornately detailed, and labored over—almost to a fault.
Pressed at Independent Record Pressing, Hell-On comes in three different LP editions: black, brown-, and peach-colored vinyl. My peach-colored copy—beautifully packaged with a 32-page full-colored, LP-sized booklet—had numerous clicks and pops even after a VPI cleaning and was not particularly quiet. Overall, the sound is well-balanced. Given all the parts were flown into the mix from a variety of places and recording situations, the presentation feels remarkably seamless.
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