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Alt-Country’s Double-X Chromosome Crooners

Sunday, July 16, 2006
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Neko CaseOne of the trends to have surfaced in music the last few years is that of the front-women of indie-rock bands releasing what could be labelled ‘alt-country’ albums as side-projects — as you can see, this is a very specific trend. I hate calling it a that — a trend; it implies that the music is written overnight to satiate the latest base demands of the market, and the artists mere constructs of some record company exec hoping to cash-in while the cashin’s good.

But this is not really of major-label doing so thankfully the above doesn’t apply — but it’s not just happenstance either; I think it has more to do with these artists influencing and guiding one another, either explicitly or not, to explore this type of music. What we get is fantastic, sometimes even heart-stopping. Not since the days of Patsy Cline has this sound been done so well and had so much purchase within the realm of popular and respected music, especially with the hipster crowd (it’s possible Loretta Lynn should also be mentioned here, but I’ve never listened to her so I can’t really say).

Jenny LewisLet’s start with Jenny Lewis, or, as she might more well be known, the woman from the Postal Service album. After an early incarnation as a child actor (guesting on The Golden Girls, Mr. Belvedere, and Roseanne, among other things), she moved on to become a teen actor starring in TV movies with Yasmine Bleeth. Perhaps realizing this isn’t a route one should take if they seek artistic respectability, in 1999 she formed the band Rilo Kiley with some friends and quit acting altogether in 2001 to pursue her music career. The sound was originally country-ish, but by their 2004 album More Adventurous they had morphed into more of an indie-rock group. For her 2006 solo album Rabbit Fur Coat (w. The Watson Twins) it appears she wanted to revisit that country twang of the early days. It could actually best be described as bluegrass-pop — songs such as The Big Guns, Rise Up With Fists!!, You Are What You Love and a cover of The Traveling WilburysHandle With Care being easily singable and toe-tapping tunes. The moments where she slows it down are hit and miss; the title song, Rabbit Fur Coat, is so boring I deleted it from my copy of the album, but the soft and tender Melt Your Heart gives you shivers the first time you hear it (listen to Rise Up With Fists!! and Melt Your Heart on MySpace).

Amy MillanNext up is Amy Millan, one half of the vocal duo for Montréal based dream-pop outfit Stars. Her debut, Honey From The Tombs, feels somewhat forced in that she doesn’t have any sort of background in this type of music, and appears to be coming at it solely through the wake of her contemporaries. This would be okay if the album wasn’t so schizophrenic; half the songs, like Losin’ You, Ruby II and Hard Hearted (Ode to Thoreau) have very basic, traditional sounding solo-guitar arrangements, while the other half, such as Skinny Boy, Come Home Loaded Roadie and Wayward and Parliament have electronic elements and sound distinctly like Stars b-sides. It is eminently listenable, though, solely because of her hallmark, breathy voice — it is so consuming and evocative you can mostly forgive the small failings of the album overall. (Listen to Losin’ You, Baby I, Come Home Loaded Roadie and Skinny Boy at MySpace).

Finally, we come to the originator — singer/songwriter and New Pornographer Neko Case. Now, of course, Case is different from Lewis and Millan in that she started off as a solo alt-country artist (although she apparently doesn’t like that term), beginning with this type of music, before helming a couple of songs off the Pornos’ debut Mass Romantic. When that took off it gave her the opportunity to still pursue her own avenues (along with a greatly expanded fan-base) while getting to rock out with a larger band every once in a while.

Neko CaseHer 2000 album Furnace Room Lullaby is, to me, the epitome of the alt-country sound. The opening track, Set Out Running, gives the impression it was recorded in a dark field one night with David Lynch conducting a choir of spirits in the wind; in Porchlight, her voice trails from sweet harmony to declarative scowling to begging forgiveness all in the same verse; in No Need To Cry she simply is Patsy Cline reincarnated; then there’s the straightforward, enjoyable honky-tonk of Mood to Burn Bridges, Thrice All American and Whip The Blankets which glues the album together and keeps it rolling right along.

In 2002 she released Blacklisted, which, while definitely following in the same steps as Furnace Room, has more of a rock feel in the construction of the songs. The highlights here are Deep Red Bells, Look For Me (I’ll Be Around), I Missed The Point and Runnin’ Out of Fools.

This year she came out with Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, what I would call her first ‘concept’ album. Many of the songs are based on old Ukrainian folktales that her grandmother would tell her when she was young; we are presented with dark stories about clandestine woodland meetings with the Fox Confessor in the title track, or a warning to Sparrow to stay in at night to avoid the rapturous attention of the hawks in Maybe Sparrow. Aside from these we also get the same amazing array of haunting melodies that we’ve come to expect from Case in Hold On, Hold On, A Widow’s Toast, John Saw That Number and The Needle Has Landed (listen to Hold On, Hold On and Star Witness from Fox Confessor and If You Knew and The Train From Kansas from her 2004 live album with The Sadies The Tigers Have Spoken on MySpace).

Who will be next? Emily Haines? Someone from Magneta Lane? Gwen Stefani?

Probably not Stefani. We’ll have to wait and see.03971semaj

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Monday, July 17, 2006 12:45 am

    An addendum:

    Apparently John Saw That Number was recorded in a stairwell at the Horseshoe Tavern here in Toronto.

    That’s pretty cool.

  2. James17930 permalink
    Sunday, September 10, 2006 9:17 pm

    Turns out it’s Emily Haines.

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