In a lot of ways, the past kinda sucked. And as the language of defensive Americana traditionalists occasionally (if inadvertently) echoes that of more dangerous political reactionaries, it’s a good time to ask why anyone would want to do things the way they’ve always been done. Two recent albums from Neko Case and Amanda Shires (both of whom happen to be in town on Thursday night—Case at the Palace Theater, Shires at the Fine Line—and both of whom emerged from the artier fringes of country music) center on the question of what an artist can do when her roots don’t nurture her but instead tangle her within a painful past.
Fans and critics have been reducing the complexity of Case’s voice and writing to the blunt cliché “a force of nature” so routinely it’s now practically a reflex. True, that’s a comparison she’s courted, at least since Middle Cyclone in 2009. And sure enough, on the first song on her new album, Hell-On, the title track, a waltz, she limns the divine in stark and allusive imagery (“God is a lusty tire fire”) en route to casting herself as “an agent of the natural world.” But Case’s identification with the vengeful elements of the physical world is just one aspect of her persona—she’s forever aphoristically redefining herself over the course of a song.
And her voice establishes such a clear, commanding presence she can shape-shift in this manner without ever surrendering her identity. Despite her song’s blurred boundaries of self—through metaphor into natural forces, through memory into her past selves, through empathy to the powerless that she’s unable to protect—there’s always an identifiable Neko-ness at their core. Voices this forceful are rarely this cool, so analytical, so untinged with pain—rather than flaunting her power, Case luxuriates in an appreciation of consonants, and the restraint she’s developed over the years is more important than the clarion force, an effect she captures in the line “I’m too much for people, so I gauge/ And shout my thoughts at you from a distance.”
Nearly all traces of country, alt or otherwise, have been leached from her voice over the years (collaborating in the Anglophile power-pop titans the New Pornographers surely played a role); in fact, Case’s closest country analogue, Patsy Cline, was in her time a pure-voiced genteel move away from hillbilly twang. Writing primarily with her longtime collaborator Paul Rigby, and working with producer Björn Yttling (of once-celebrated Swedish indie-poppers Peter Björn and John), Case has crafted a sound that’s atmospheric yet grounded in distinct hooks, which befits songs on which the imagery is dense but not cryptic. The melodies and lyrics often feel emotionally separate, not isolated but working along parallel tracks, as the prosaic rhythm of her lyrics is enjambed into melody lines.
So if Hell-On often feels less autobiographical than its immediate predecessor, 2013’s The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You , that doesn’t mean it feels less lived in, or even that it actually is less autobiographical. “The Curse of the I-5 Corridor” is a reminiscence of drunken youth with lines as quotable as “I fucked every man that I wanted to be” as Mark Lanegan rumbles in harmony like a subway running beneath an apartment; the trauma suggested there is brought closer to the fore on “My Uncle’s Navy,” about a creepy friend of the family. To defend against such memories, Case fashions “modern folklore and fairy tales” on the limber “Bad Luck” (as she told Entertainment Weekly) and, on “Winnie,” seeks out a mythical antecedent from among the ancient Amazons. Maybe you can never quiet the voices from your past. But you can drown them out by summoning more empowering voices in your defense.
Amanda Shires made her name as a fiddle player, first with the Texas Playboys, later in Nashville, before emerging in earnest as a singer-songwriter with her 2016 album, My Piece of Land. But the strong songwriting and lively settings of that fine collection sound downright conventional compared to her most recent album, To the Sunset. Shires’ violin is less prominent here, typically blended astringently into a dense roil by Nashville’s Americana producer du jour Dave Cobb, who also accentuates the inherent quaver of Shires’ voice with reverb and other effects. (Shires also has an ace sideman in husband Jason Isbell, whose guitar hooks alternately underscore and peel off from her melody lines with the careful response of a close listener.)
Shires sings with something of Dolly Parton’s timbre but a fraction of her oomph, so when she crescendos it’s as though she’s summoning the gumption to raise her voice, a winning strategy. She excels at capturing the ephemerality of overwhelming desire (“I envy your clothes/How’d they get to be so close,” she sings on the frisky, handsy “Leave It Alone”) and rides the flat drum sound of tracks like “Swimmer” as though resuscitating some lost AM radio or turn of the ’80s pop country hit. But she gradually begins to probe darker territory as To the Sunset proceeds. On “Charms,” she etches decades of family miscommunication in two and a half minutes, describing an inherited emptiness with the discovery that “Maybe bein’ human is an orphan condition and what’s missin’ isn’t meant to be found.”
“Break Out the Champagne” is a raucously future-denying carpe diem, and “Mirror, Mirror” a wiser take on the comparisons social media creates than Drake’ll ever think up. And it’s fitting that the chorus of the more oblique “White Feather” lingers on a chorus of “What you don’t understand,” and that the way Shires pauses between “near” and “me” suggests a chasm of interpretation. Darkest of all is the closing track, “Wasn’t I Paying Attention?” about a troubled man in Nome who sets himself on fire to prove some inexplicable religious point. All it takes for the apocalypse to arrive, Shires reminds us, is for enough nutjobs to believe it’s nigh.
With: Thao (of the Get Down Stay Down)
Where: Palace Theatre
When: 6:30 p.m. Thurs. Sept. 6
Tickets: $35/$50; more info here
Where: Fine Line Music Cafe
When: 7 p.m. Thurs. Sept. 6
Tickets: $25/$40; more info here