Case’s sixth album is sad, weird and great

by Gillian Mahoney

cd-nekoNeko Case
The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You
4 out of 5

With any Neko Case album, you can always count on that voice, a gale-force sound that grows more powerful with every held note until it seems strong enough to level a house.

On her sixth album, Case uses that voice to go inward, reckon with the past and take the biggest artistic risks of her career. In a recent interview with the Guardian, the 42-year-old singer/songwriter speaks candidly about the depression that struck her in the wake of her mother, father and grandmother’s deaths. The losses dealt Case more than a little pain, leaving her unable to connect with people or enjoy music.

On “Where Did I Leave That Fire”, she feels numb and fears her life force –– her fire –– may never return. “Will a stranger find it on a curb idling?” she sings. “Cold call from a time zone just short of outer space.” Sonar sounds add to the sense of dislocation, making it one of the most unconventional songs Case has ever written.

“Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” is similarly unusual and vulnerable. Performing a cappella, Case recalls a moment she witnessed between a young girl and her mother that’s dysfunctional and heartbreaking. Don’t put this one on at a party unless you’re comfortable bawling like a baby in front of your friends.

There are also familiar touches to please longtime fans. “Night Still Comes” is the type of slow burn country/soul ballad that Case nails with ease, while album opener “Wildest Creatures” has the haunting beauty and smart chord changes that call to mind 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood or 2009’s Middle Cyclone.

While the new album doesn’t always go down as easy as her previous records, it’s much more audacious. At a stage where most musicians run out of things to say, it’s inspiring to see Case putting herself out there and turning her hardships into great art.


cd-okkervilOkkervil River
The Silver Gymnasium
4 out of 5

“Show me my best memory –– it’s probably super crappy,” sings Will Sheff on “Pink-Slips”. He’s got a lot of crap to go through on The Silver Gymnasium, the newest album from his group, Okkervil River. Sheff’s pulled the band back together to run through youthful tragedies small and large for his first explicitly autobiographical record. Using the touring configuration of the group rather than the anyone-and-everyone version he assembled for 2011’s I Am Very Far gives The Silver Gymnasium a refined sound. It also suits Sheff’s songwriting, which is trending more and more towards late ’70s pop and folk-rock. The Silver Gymnasium covers the big Okkervil tropes: playing music, fatherhood and nautical references all come up. Cars are all over the place too — Jaguars, Cadillacs, Corvettes and less pricey rides abound. In “Pink-Slips”, the singer calls himself “a canary of the American eclipse.” It’s a kinda perfect line, and The Silver Gymnasium’s got a lot of those. /James Brotheridge


cd-chevalierChevalier Avant Garde
Resurrection Machine
Fixture Records
3 out of 5

The European/Montrealaise, sometimes electronica, sometimes post-punk duo Chevalier Avant Garde has reworked selections from its back catalogue into a full-length album. The result sounds like felting: the band takes the wool of their early crafts and runs it through wash-and-dry cycles of revision. The result has a strange elegance, as thickly applied style interacts with pared-down songwriting. Danceable moments pop up giddily and occasionally in these songs about… love? Alienation? The washed out vox let you decide. The tunes’ tactile elements fit well with Fixture Records’ roster of artists who value the immediacy of homemade recordings and gently weird atmospheres.

Resurrection Machine’s synths and analogue beats would make an excellent soundtrack for a post-Kubrick science fiction movie, complete with bleached beach fronts and wandering characters combing the sand with metal detectors. Recommended if you like: the Drive movie soundtrack, Solaris (1972), cresting. /Amber Goodwyn


cd-kingkhanKing Khan and the Shrines
Idle No More
4 out of 5

King Khan’s newest album may be named after the indigenous rights movement but his latest smash ’n’ bang garage-soul howler isn’t specifically political. Instead it’s about the galvanizing effect of tragedy on artistic production. Idle No More emerges from a nervous breakdown, the deaths of friends and two years of therapy. But you won’t find pat life lessons on the record. Instead, tracks like “Darkness” confront pain head-on and set it against a killer horn section. What do you do when life hands you lemons? You smash those lemons to a pulp and scream into the microphone. And don’t forget the Hammond organ. /Aidan Morgan


cd-royalcanoeRoyal Canoe
Today We’re Believers
3 out of 5

Winnipeg six-piece Royal Canoe’s first full-length, Today We’re Believers, is an amalgam of Broken Social Scene and Stars, Jamiroquai, MGMT and Imogen Heap. That much variety comes with a caveat — as you’d expect, this is about the furthest thing from a cohesive album. Stuffed to the gills with synthesizers, clattering drums and vocoders, a lot of Today We’re Believers is bracing but some of it, including “Light” and album closer “If I Had a House”, go a little too far and end up on the goofy side of the gimmick spectrum. Elsewhere, entirely disparate styles butt together uncomfortably, with burbling electro-pop leading into vintage soul then segueing into straightforward indie-rock. It’s a dizzying pastiche. Still, any band capable of an anthem as rousing as “Bathtubs” clearly has some seriously killer pop songwriting skills. Royal Canoe just needs to pull theirs out of the jumble. /Matthew Blackwell


cd-terrymaltsTerry Malts
Nobody Realizes This Is Nowhere
2 out of 5

Garage-rock bands are great for sure-fire fun listening. After all, tape distortion and Ramones chord progressions are inherently good things. Then again, there are already a hundred thousand records with tape distortion and Ramones chord progressions — and every single fan of garage rock already owns, like, 10 or 20. That’s not to say there’s not still interesting stuff coming out, but the bulk of it produces more yawning than shimmying.

San Francisco three-piece Terry Malts does well at keeping This Is Nowhere from feeling too by-the-numbers, but the band’s poppier tracks are short on hooks and the more “adventurous” tracks mostly fall flat. There are bright spots, like the Eric’s Trip-y “I Was Not There”. Unfortunately, the band’s forays into, for instance, doofy skate-punk (“Life’s a Dream”) don’t fare so well. Pre-orders of the album apparently ship with a bonus flexi-disc, which is appropriate: flexis, like This is Nowhere itself, have their charms, but they’re flimsy and wear out in a day. /Mason Pitzel