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Thursday, April 27, 2006 01:19 am

Case of the missing heart

Sure, Fox Confessor is a tour de force — but that’s not enough

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Neko Case Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Anti-)
Much has been made of Neko Case’s peerless pipes, and rightly so. Her voice, a resonant contralto, is as loud as a marching band, as bright as church bells, as delicate as peony petals. If it were a color, it would be maroon. It’s even more spectacular than her abundant auburn hair, which cascades down her back in impossible waves. You aren’t surprised, once you hear That Voice, that its owner was once voted the sexiest woman in indie rock by the readers of some dumb lad mag, which followed up by inviting her to pose naked. Case, to her credit, declined. The former punk-rock drummer turned alt-country icon turned part-time New Pornographer is a reluctant sex symbol, which only increases her appeal. All the indie dorks want to marry her, all the indie horndogs want to do her, and when they remind her of their devotion, bellowing their bad-drunk propositions at her during shows, she pays them back in the currency of her contempt. There’s something slightly inhuman about her, and it’s hard to pin down because, aside from her prodigious vocal talent and those luxuriant fox-fur tresses, she seems fairly down to earth and no-nonsense. As befits someone who spends most of her time on the road, she usually shows up for gigs in jeans and an old T-shirt, her face devoid of makeup, her hair tousled or swept into a haphazard bun. Still, unlike so many other pop-music divas, from Patsy Cline to Aretha Franklin to Kelly freakin’ Clarkson, Case inspires awe but never empathy. You can’t relate to her any more than you can relate to a tsunami or an eclipse. When she sings, “The most tender place in my heart is for strangers/I know it’s unkind, but my own blood is much too dangerous,” you take her at her word. It may be this remove that keeps Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Case’s fourth studio full-length, from being a truly great album. On the surface, all the elements are in place for a legend-making classic: that pitch-perfect peal, the strongest and most evocative songs she’s ever written, a supporting cast (Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb; Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico; Garth Hudson of the Band; longtime allies Kelly Hogan, Jon Rauhouse, and the Sadies) that would make even an average singer sound phenomenal. The songs are undeniably gorgeous through and through, from the ’50s torch and twang of “Lion’s Jaws” to the narcotic nightmare waltz of “Dirty Knife,” the fairytale fatalism of “Maybe Sparrow” and “Margaret vs. Pauline,” and the power-pop fantasia of “The Needle Has Landed.” There isn’t a single track that won’t dazzle you with its peculiar mix of extravagant virtuosity and eggheaded verbiage (“the sledge of tectonic fever,” “fate holds her firm in its cradle and then rolls her for a tender pause to savor”). Even the CD’s packaging is stellar, with creepy/cute, Edward Goreyesque drawings by Julie Morstad and additional artwork by Case herself. But even though there’s much to admire (maybe too much — could that be part of the problem?), Fox Confessor lacks the intangible, transcendent quality that distinguishes immortal records from those that merely wind up on critics’ best-of-the-year lists, as this one no doubt will. Yeah, it’s really, really good, even better than 2002’s groundbreaking Blacklisted. It’s ambitious in its scope, painstaking in its realization, a downright tour de force. But like the opening cut’s eponymous Pauline, the rich and beautiful girl for whom “everything’s so easy,” the album has an ingot in its breast. All that’s missing is its hungry heart.
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