ot too long ago, Neko Case wrote an article for Girlyhead magazine about dreaming. In it, she describes her favorite dream, where her, Steve Earle, and Madonna were all playing a show in Vancouver. After the show, all three of them have a “sex sandwich”. And the tryst ends with Madonna remarking to Neko, “Your hair looks like a wig.” This is Neko Case’s world. It’s perfect, really. After all, if you spliced the genes of Ms. Ciccone (err... Ritchie?) and Mr. Earle, the resulting creation would probably act, look, and sound a lot like Neko. You would get the whole package, Madonna’s whip-smart pop sensibilities and assured sexuality. Steve Earle’s deep, powerful, lonesome voice and penchant for penning sad, sad songs. And, naturally, both Steve Earle and Madonna’s knack for getting into all sorts of trouble. Blacklisted could well be the audio result of the Earle/Madonna Frankenstein monster. Sad, confident, countrified pop that’s sexy and ready to get into a scrap.
Jangling guitars and a gently chugging beat float up and out, like an open stretch of road. “Things That Scare Me” opens the record and sets a mournful tone. Neko sings cryptic, mysterious lyrics, letting her voice guide the song. It’s part of an amazing four song opening punch. All four songs are perfect, Case’s lyrics are at their most personal and beautiful here. They are rich and vivid, most evident on the ambling crooner “Deep Red Bells”. “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,” Neko sings. The short but bittersweet “Outro With Bees” is followed by “Lady Pilot”. Aptly, this song soars. Neko’s voice navigates her lady pilot through the lilting melody. “It’s true today I saw it from the plane/ Aero planes were never built to fly.” Neko sings before letting her voice fly in and out of the mix. “We’ve got a lady pilot/ and she’s not afraid to die.” “Lady Pilot” has the kind of melody that’s catchy right away, but it’s also sneaking around your skull while you’re too busy with other things. It catches you unaware and snags you in less than three minutes.
Neko hasn’t strayed too far from her familiar themes. It’s all here. Heartbreak and longing. Death and the mistakes that hurt. On the title track, Neko laments, “Fast train/ where do your passengers wait?/ What’s at the heart/ Of your engine’s rage?” and “Welcome home faithful one/ We forgive you.” All while the drums chug along menacingly in the background, and layers of guitars switch in and out between twang and fuzz and klang. “Slow down fast train/ take me with you” is the final plea at the end of the song.
Lots of familiar faces appear on Blacklisted. Steel guitar wonder Jon Rauhouse returns again, as does fellow Bloodshot chanteuse, Kelly Hogan. Howe Gelb, Joey Burns, and John Convertino of Giant Sand and Calexico fame all appear here as the primary backing band. They make a perfect match. All three are a tight and skilled, but also expressive enough to go head to head with Neko’s big, passionate voice.
Neko’s choice in covers is always impeccable. She’s covered everyone from Scott Walker to Loretta Lynne. This time around, she tackles two humdingers. The slightly creepy, slightly sexy “Look For Me (I’ll Be Around)”, first performed by Ketty Lester, is peppered with echoing bells, organ and steel guitar. Also covered is the Aretha Franklin classic, “Runnin’ Out of Fools”. I was pretty skeptical to hear Neko take on Aretha. True, Neko has quite an amazing voice, but we’re talking about Aretha Franklin here. I’m sure it took some balls to cover “Runnin’ Out of Fools”, and by god, it shows. Neko takes it by the collar and runs with it. There is no holding back or trying to tone it down. Just balls out singing. While respectfully nodding to Aretha, Neko adds bar room piano and twangy guitars to the mix. It works.
Blacklisted closes with a reprise of “Outro With Bees”. Buzzing radio stations get tuned in an out before fixing in on Neko’s voice. It fades out again as the song is ending, “Red wine is fast/ at the lip of your glass/ and I’m gonna ruin/ Everything, everything”, fumbling over other radio stations and into the air.
Just like the very best albums in anyone’s collection, Blacklisted leaves the listener with an aftertaste. It leaves you wanting more. Which is pretty darned cool, especially these days, when most albums leave you wanting something a little bit more than a few good singles. Maybe a little less invention, and a little more heart. Neko Case writes great songs, and sings them with love and heart. And while there is lots of good, even great music out there, not much of it even begins to touch Neko’s passion.
Reviewed by: Colleen Delaney
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01