Neko Case Blacklisted Review

BBC Review

Another blow against those who equate country with stultifying conservatism.

Chris Jones 2002

Already doing fine business in the UK as an import, this third album by Ms Case advances the argument that the North American continent at present produces the best modernfolk music that speaks from a tradition unbroken by generation gaps or stylistic differences. Whereas the UK seems shackled to the notion of tradition as a fixed and immutable entity akin to sacred texts resistant to any modernising blasphemy, the USA constantly plays with the notions of its past, bending genres to reflect present-day concerns. Touted as alt country, Blacklisted is, simply put, a country folk album that is as modern as it can be. Oh yes - and it's also a work of some beauty.

From indie roots in Vancouver's Maow, Case has steadily turned a love affair with Nashville (and Loretta Lynn in particular) into a career that's wholly her own. Recognizing talented co-conspirators is already an established talent for her (the last album, Furnace Room Lullaby featured Ron Sexsmith) and this time she's wisely teamed up with Giant Sand/Calexico luminaries Joey Burns, Howe Gelb and John Convertino. Along with Mary Margaret O'Hara guesting on backing vocals this adds up to a fabulously dark slice of future folk. Whereas Gelb and Co. have the dry desert textures of Arizona as their touchstone, Neko utilises an eery early-hours-insomnia spaciness in the production, to bring to mind whistling pines in a deserted northern forest.

Brian Connelly's baritone guitar recalls a Twin Peaks-style murderous undertone, especially on ''Deep Red Bells'' and ''Tightly'', and it's this aspect of Case's work that impresses most. In the same vein as tour-mate Nick Cave she employs a disturbingly accurate 50s retro feel to subvert her very modern tales of distrust and displacement. On ''Look For Me (I'll Be Around)'' her voice (and what a voice -all Rosemary Clooney meets Shelby Lynne) soars over toothsome vibes and vibrato guitar in a way that just makes one think of soda pop, truck stops and menace - all at the same time. If further proof were needed as to her abilities, it's not everyone who could take on an Aretha Franklin standard (''Runnin' Out Of Fools'') and come away with their head held high. She does.

This isn't to say that Blacklisted strays too far from a country template. Opener ''Things That Scare Me'' is as valid a contemporary take on Bluegrass as any Union Station track you'd care to mention, while ''Stinging Velvet'' has all the best music row licks buried in its heart. It's just marvellous that America still has the ability to revitalise its indigenous art forms. Another blow against those who equate country with stultifying conservatism. Rednecks beware -these currents run deep...

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