Neko Case is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside of a voice.
Neko Case is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside of a voice. The more confident she has grown as a songwriter and singer over the years, the less clear her intentions, the more obscure her references, the more involuted her song structures. There is no explaining “Hell-On,” the title track to her new album, unless you are somehow blessed with an intuitive understanding of lines like this:
Just at sorrow’s waterline
I drape you on tomorrow’s plate
Ferrous, metal marrow spilling
Not yours but mine
I’m an agent of the natural world
Say what? But: keep listening. You won’t understand it any better but you might grow to understand that understanding is besides the point. Case is indeed an agent of the natural world, otherwise known as a force of nature, and there is something in her haunted melodies and cryptic utterances that command not merely respect but something approaching exaltation. “Hell-On” begins like an oddball Waitsian waltz, tip-toes through an unremitting series of puzzling declarations before shifting time signature and tone at 1:52 and again at 2:24 before finding its way back to 3/4 time at 2:54 for a finish that matches the deliberately sung, vaguely off-kilter opening section. You listen once and you have little idea where you are or what she’s doing. Any sense it begins to acquire with repeated listens is sub-rational at best. She seems so determined in her opacity that she swallows the title phrase of the song beyond recognition (the lyrics at this point [3:27] go: “Nature can’t amend its ways/Boils hell-on and then replays”)—as a listener, then, your not knowing what she’s talking about is compounded by your not even apprehending the sounds she’s making.
A lesser artist might lose me here. (Alas, we live in a world dominated by lesser artists.) Neko is the real thing. I haven’t yet had the chance to listen to the entire album but what I’ve heard so far has wowed me; I’m pretty sure this is not nearly the best song on the album, but it’s the available free and legal MP3 (via KEXP) and you should still have it. Then go on to Bandcamp and listen to the entire album. Furthermore: please consider the radical act of buying the actual album for actual money (it’s only $8), in support of actual music.
The musical atmosphere is both minimal and somehow off-kilter, the rock instruments here played with a mixture of restraint and resolve, as if they’d been told to pretend they were a jazz combo, without playing any jazz.
No introduction, literally, prepares us for the woozy “I Think I Knew”—the song begins right on the words “There’s no talking to him,” but you quickly have to wonder: is it really his fault? It’s hard to make heads or tails out of the woman lodging this particular complaint; lyrics fade in and out of comprehension, due partly to Le Bon’s singular accent (she is Welsh), partly to her unforthcoming diction, and partly to the strangeness of the words themselves. The musical atmosphere, meanwhile, is both minimal and somehow off-kilter, the rock instruments here (bass, drum, electric guitar, keyboards) played with a mixture of restraint and resolve, as if they’d been told to pretend they were a jazz combo, without playing any jazz.
The song’s central motif is both its strongest and strangest: the repetition, in the chorus, of the line “I wish I knew.” She sings it six times in a row, never once quite aligned with the beat, and phrased continually as if blurting an idle thought rather than singing a lyric. (Only later in the song do we get the additional, titular phrase “I think I knew.”) Around the repeated words dances a flute-like synthesizer, which gives us the song’s instrumental hook (that descending scale first heard around 0:59), and then also kind of just scoots away with an abrupt, naive heedlessness.
In the second verse the song becomes a duet, featuring the Seattle-based singer/songwriter Mark Hadreas, who performs as Perfume Genius, and sings with enough fragile/mysterious affect himself that his opening line, too, becomes one of the only lyrically clear moments. Some relationship has taken an unhappy turn, to be sure, but how much more wonderful to listen to such a story when the words fade into a disoriented haze of regret and second thought rather than detail a concrete narrative of blame and/or self-pity. It can be no accident that the song rises above comprehensibility only at the beginning of verses and then at the end, when the duo sings together, with portentous melancholy, “This one to cut the heart in two, the other one to choose.”
“I Wish I Knew” is from Le Bon’s forthcoming album Mug Museum, slated for release in November on Wichita Recordings. The album was recorded in Los Angeles, where Le Bon relocated earlier this year. She has been featured once before on Fingertip, in January 2012. Thanks again to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.
There’s no particular point in trying to parse this song; better to let it wash over you, repeatedly.
Now then, everything I just said about elusive songwriting? Um, maybe never mind. Yo La Tengo is back in town and they are long-reigning masters of elusive pop songs. They may have partially invented the genre. The blurry singing, the fuzzy background, the vehement guitars, the incomprehensible lyrics? It’s all here. And damn if it isn’t pretty lovable somehow.
There’s no particular point in trying to parse this song; better to let it wash over you, on repeat, the way the droning guitar washes over the noodling guitar in the introduction. It’s jarring at first but it works. Over time you may register how the fleeting dissonances and the modest melodious moments congeal into one hypnotic whole. Ira Kaplan whispers his way around a tune that does its best to hide its moment of gratifying resolution. While the guitars seem often to be playing in another song altogether, it’s their long, lyric-free interlude—beginning around 3:18—that to me anchors the song, and renders its mysteries mysteriously meaningful. This episode starts as two plicky, plunking guitars soloing against each other, but at around 3:34 the lower of the two begins an anvil-like repetition of one chord, with one dissonant hiccup at 3:49. The solo guitar, at once meandering and forceful, all but stumbles into a truly satisfying resolution (4:05) and after that, the song just makes sense. The chorus melody had itself given us a taste of resolution back when first heard (1:54) but note how much richer it seems the second time (4:37), reinforced by the synthesizers that join the song for the home stretch.
“Stupid Things” is from the new Yo La Tengo album, Fade, which was released this month on Matador Records. This is their 13th studio album. MP3 via Epitonic. For those keeping score at home, Yo La Tengo has been featured on Fingertips four previous times, most recently in July ’09.