Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
hen you’re in the presence of true greatness, real virtuosic artistry, it must be easy to recede into the background. Think of all those space-fillers surrounding Al Pacino when he chews up scenery, or the negligible role players standing around watching Allen Iverson knife through triple teams on his way to a lay-up. Think about those two lily-white tag-alongs, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, comprising two-thirds of the Jimi Hendrix Experience in name only.
Neko Case’s voice is just that kind of transcendent instrument, so fierce and pure it demands your undivided attention, your reverence, and your awe. After all, what sounds could possibly compete with that clear, aching contralto that conjures the ghost of Patsy Cline and contains all the violence, longing, and futility of centuries-burdened America?
Of course, geniuses also need friction, something solid to rub up against, spurring them to heights unattained. Al had Coppola and De Palma, Alley I had Larry Brown—hell, Hendrix managed to get Redding and Mitchell to play loud at least, before he sloughed them off for the more-challenging Band of Gypsies.
Unsurprisingly, everything on Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is sublimated beneath Case’s vocals: music, momentum, the need for tunes. Granted, it’s an arresting and frequently beautiful record, because Case is an amazing singer who also writes provocative, bloodletting lyrics. Neko’s world is one that’s intimately recognizable but imminently threatening, where everyday mundanities (“we can stay at my sister’s if we say we’ll watch the baby”) share uneasy space with cryptic intimations (“my blood’s much too dangerous.”) Occasionally, there’s even a statement of naked sentiment (“I’m holding out for that teenage feeling”), though the subtly sinister (“sang nursery rhymes to paralyze”) is clearly the established norm. And while it’s true that voices as reliably mesmerizing as Case’s are often conducive to coasting by on breathtaking talent alone, Neko holds back nothing, enthusiastically tearing into red-meat narratives like “Star Witness” and “The Needle Has Landed” as well as free-association fragments like “Maybe Sparrow” and “A Widow’s Toast.”
For much of the album, however, the musicians playing behind Case seem preoccupied with trying not to step on her toes (of course, in Case’s moonlighting gig with the New Pornographers there are no such qualms, which is why she’s more enjoyable, if not quite as compelling, in that context). The Case-arranged standard “John Saw What Number” is full of gospel grit and swings with unstudied purpose, but Neko needs at least another half-dozen songs just like it to counterbalance the moody, cinematic noir that makes up such a substantial chunk of her catalogue. Elsewhere it’s tremolo, ominous string stabs (“Dirty Knife”), piano filigree (“Margaret vs. Pauline”), and faux-Morricone vibes (“Hold On, Hold On”) that carry the day, which might be allowable if there were any real hooks or songs here rather than set pieces and frustrating ellipses (for an album that takes so long to make things happen, it’s way too short).
We can marvel at tremendous displays of individual brilliance, but the facts remain that Hendrix’s records don’t hold up as well as James Brown’s, the Sixers have been mired in mediocrity for five years, and Pacino’s acting morphed into a gross caricature of his role in Scent of a Woman. It’s hard to preach the team concept in the face of talent as stunning as Neko’s, and it’s true there are several moments on Fox Confessor that are utterly beguiling, disarming, near-holy. You just can’t help but wonder what this record would’ve sounded like if Case had made it in Nashville. Or with Shooter Jennings’ band. Or with musicians who turned their amps up past 4.