Tacoma's Got Coal Mines, Too
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Around 10:30 p.m. G---- went outside to smoke and M--- joined him, not to smoke but to "get some air." Two weeks earlier G---- and M--- had had an argument about Neko Case, G---- more or less calling Case a charlatan and a harlot, M--- taking a more fannish view. Eventually, insincerely, G---- conceded that he should probably listen to more of Ms. Case's stuff, not actually using the courtesy title. The next day, M--- arrived at G----'s apartment with CD-Rs of the entire Case corpus, including the recently issued Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. He had even drawn incompetent likenesses of the cover art from each album and had diligently copied the liner notes to the letter, as if G---- cared about Case's legal representation or who plays organ and piano on Fox (Garth Hudson from the Band!). The real reason M--- followed G---- outside was to resume the debate.
M: So did you have a chance to listen to those CDs?
G: Yeah. Maybe I was hard on her. The new one's pretty good.
M: I think it's great, her best yet. I like her earlier country stuff but it almost sounds like high-level apprentice work now. She's herself on this album, and more of her time. Partly that's because she's mostly writing on her own these days and not bothering with genre conventions, but it's deeper than that. I read an interview where she said that "sadness can be gratifying," and maybe that's what I like most about this record: It seems to know how to experience sadness--not to wallow in it but to co-exist with it.
G: Well that's kind of vague and mushy for me, but I do think it's a decent record. I guess I got turned off when she first came out, 'cause everyone was going on about how she was this beacon of purity, the second coming of Patsy Cline or the anti-Shania or whatever, and I don't like Shania Twain much, either...
M: I do. I like everything Mutt Lange produces.
G: See, that's your problem. You're so open-minded, you'll let any piece of shit in. But anyway, she was supposed to be the real deal in a world of phony shopping-mall pop country, but, you know, she grew up in Tacoma and went to art school in Vancouver! And I know my history so I know you don't have to be poor and Southern to make great country music, but that Southern accent of hers--those distended vowels and clipped gerunds and all that coal miner's daughter shit--why is that less phony than making '80s pop records and calling them country? Besides, the traditionalists thought Patsy Cline and Owen Bradley's countrypolitan records were selling out real country, too, so the whole argument was absurdly circular.
M: Well, she was born in Virginia, though I know she didn't live there long. I don't know, maybe she overdid the Southern affectations in the early days, but most young singers do that kind of thing. She loves those old country and gospel records and so some of those mannerisms seeped into her singing--just like Dylan aping Woody and 300,000 white guys trying to sound black and on and on.
G: Precedence isn't an all-purpose excuse. I'm not saying she's not entitled to sing like Loretta Lynn, I was trying to explain what turned me off about the hype.
M: Well, hype is always bullshit. That's why it's hype. Neko's singing, though, even when it was more affectedly Southern--and on her new stuff I hear as much Judy Garland as Loretta Lynn--it was never kitschy. And she can back it up--I mean, she does have an incredible voice.
G: I don't think her voice is quite credible either, that's my problem. It's impressive but stagy; it seems to be more about the singing itself than what she's trying to express. And LeAnn Rimes has a great voice and can sing like Patsy Cline, too, but I haven't heard hipsters rhapsodizing about her incredibly powerful voice.
M: Leave LeAnn Rimes and your tired hipster hate out of this. You don't find her singing on "Star Witness" expressive? That's perverse. It sounds like open-heart surgery! And she's pretty much lost the Southern accent on the new album, and it had already faded considerably on Blacklisted.
G: Yeah, I think Henry Higgins came into the studio and really worked on it with her. But Blacklisted, well some of it's great, but it's full of all those American gothic, In Cold Blood, murder-ballad clichés--lines like "haunted by American dreams." Let it rest. And it's so studied--not just the singing but the perfect vintage reverb, the slaved-over tremolo, everything meticulously crafted to sound 40 years old.
M: Maybe that was appropriate. Nostalgia is just a kind of sadness. I do like how the new one sounds, though, more than Furnace Room Lullaby, which used to be my favorite. The review in the Times said that the new one was retro but not really tied to any era, and I think that's right.
G: It's also slicker, though. As I said, I pretty much like this album. I really like "Margaret Vs. Pauline," especially the part about how the worst thing that ever happened to Pauline was when she left a sweater on a train, but the other girl lost three fingers in a cannery.
M: That's a great lyric! I don't know what most of these songs are about, maybe she doesn't either, but a lot of phrases and images stick with me: "parking-lot eyes," "my nightgown sweeps the pavement clean," "I'm holding out for that teenage feeling," "hey there, there's such dandy wolves 'round town tonight."
G: Is it "dandy wolves"? I thought it was deadly wolves.
M: Maybe it's deadly.
M: You really should quit smoking.
G: I know.
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