Neko Case has been a classic country revivalist, a power-pop belter, and an alternate-universe torch-song singer. But whatever style she's taken on, her voice has remained fundamentally the same, suggesting forcefulness, vulnerability, and hard-won wisdomsometimes all at once. It's tough to pigeonhole Case's latest album, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, even though it contains elements of the torch, twang, and hooks that have come before. Old friends The Sadies, Calexico, Kelly Hogan, and Howe Gelb all show up (alongside an unexpected new collaborator, Garth Hudson of The Band), and the songs have echoes of her past work. But there's a confidence here that carried over from Case's remarkable 2004 live album The Tigers Have Spoken. Case has finished paying homage; she's making Neko Case music now.
What that is exactly remains tough to pin down. With "John Saw That Number," Case reworks a traditional spiritual with heaven-bound enthusiasm, then dips into the blood-spattered depths of "Dirty Knife," describing a scene where something terrible seems to have happened and the "cats are wild / you can't even touch the tip of their tails." Making literal sense of it all is a losing battle, but Case sings with a conviction that cuts through logic. On the unsettling album-closer "The Needle Has Landed," it's hard to figure out whether she's singing about a syringe or a stylus, but it's clear that whatever's she's referring to has left its mark.
Passion does battle with exhaustion on the smoldering "Hold On, Hold On," a song whose opening statement"the most tender place in my heart is for strangers"may be the most hopeful sentiment on the album, or the most cynical. Either way, Case sings it like she sings every line: with a conviction that demands attention, wrapping it in lush, atmospheric music and keeping its secrets for herself.