Friday, March 31, 2017

Prison: Neko Case, Prison Girls

Purchase, Middle Cyclone, by Neko Case

I’ll take any opportunity talk about Neko Case. Ex punk rocker, singer songwriter, the best part of The new Pornographers—Case has an impressive resume, and that is before you even get to her solo work, which comprises her most stunning work. But what is most stunning about Case is this: she has a powerful and unique voice that is its own vital, yet distinctly separate instrument in whatever band she is performing front side. There is almost a lack of femininity to her vocal range, and while I wouldn’t use the word strident for what that word lacks, or rather says, as connotation, there is something moving and arresting in Case’s voice, when she performs in a softer register or really letting it out. Nor can I call her voice strong, though it is just that. Strong doesn’t quite characterize the way she rises above the music. Case sings like no one I’ve ever listened to. She can be as gentle in the soprano harmony of a purred hum fill, as she can be belting out the hey na nas in a shout out chorus.

Case does country, but in her own unique way, so labels don’t work. But, her music travels far from that particular genre. Her last few releases defy comparison and I strive for a single adjective in which to place her, style-wise. Like the greatest of artists, she is elusive while being almost identifiable. Her sound ranges from big, to folky, to antique, in a wonderful, nostalgic-for-something-you-don’t-know kind of way. I read an interview once with her, where she talked as she wandered her barn which was filled with old pianos and organs and other vintage instruments, all of which were going to be put to use on her next project. That struck me again as I listened: Case’s music is full of sound—sound in that sense that she is making a landscape, building it carefully, with her voice as the central spine, but then adding a plethora of other, beautiful harmonies. Again, the sound is multitudinous, an intense and dramatic choir of resonating aural portraits. Almost indefinable, but so perfect as to exist within its own special genre.

And this says nothing yet of her writing, perhaps her very strongest skill. Neko Case is a poet, with the pure of luck of having a brilliant voice. Her work is imagistic, and profound ideas march in metaphor across a unique lyrical world. She talks often of animals (foxes, killer whales), she talks of weather (sideways snow), she takes ordinary moments and suffuses them with comparisons and images that carry the brilliance of fresh paint on a canvas. Put her imagistic narratives up against sounds that come from strange places and the listener comes across 3-minute-and-something masterpiece after 3-minute-and-something masterpiece.  Case reminds me in many ways of the great imagist poets such as James Wright with her use of not just the image, but the deep image that carries with it the impression of the thing it is picturing and the emotional after-image that the thing means, like what happens when someone snaps your picture with a flash—the impression lasts, and deepens to a profundity that might not be immediately evident. But, again, the image abides, hovering in your thought, coloring your emotional tie to the music. Her song, “Deep Red Bells” comes to mind, with the image of a hand print left on the vinyl seat of a car, made fro ma sweating palm, there but for a moment, then gone.

“Prison Girls” is another perfect example of Case’s writing prowess. The song itself, from 2009’s Middle Cyclone, is smoky, languid and watery in a way. It’s dark and slinky, with a reverbed guitar that carries on as an eerie chime throughout. Like much of Case’s music, there is a rise toward a major chord-driven chorus that rises out of the stark, minor key whisp and sway, before sinking back down again. Case makes music with odd, rhythmic sensations; the sounds always remind me sonically of a breeze through a window. I’ll let you do with that image what you will. As far as the lyrics, “Prison Girls” is gorgeous image poetry with a narrative that is hard to pin down. I thought a lot about what she’s talking about here, aside from the obvious setting of a women’s prison. But like much of Case’s lyrics, the meaning is subservient to the beauty of the imagery and thus the picture she draws and the visual spell she casts. Case creates atmosphere often without filling in the details, and “Prison Girls” is mysterious by flirting around an unnamed central theme. But the mood she creates forgives the lack of through line. Take for instance:
            Awakened by a droning voice
            I love your long shadows and your gunpowder eyes
            Is it a lady of is it a man
            Humming helicopters through the blades of a fan
There is a haunted ambiance that carries “Prison Girls”, with that line, I love your long shadows and your gunpowder eyes, sung as a repeated refrain. It hints at menacing guards, looming over helpless prisoners; it brings to mind dark, lonely places; it puts the listener in a place they don’t want to be. But, good writing can carry the reader, or listener, to places they don’t want to go, but go anyway.
             Prison girls are not impressed
            They're the ones that have to clean this mess
            They've traded more for cigarettes
            Than I've managed to express 

You don’t really need to know exactly what she’s talking about. Like any great artist, the image, the impression, is its own entity and exists solely for the watcher, listener, to understand as they will. With Neko Case, however, the music will entrance you and much like waking up from a dream you don’t understand, the impression is sometimes more important than the meaning.

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