BOTTOM LINE Another step in stretching the definition of country music.
Neko Case’s voice is so hauntingly beautiful that it is often difficult to focus on what she is saying.
But on her sixth solo album, “Hell-On” (Anti-), Case’s lyrics are so well-crafted and sharp that they cannot be ignored.
“God is a lusty tire fire,” she declares in the title track, delivered like jazzy improv over a spare country waltz that takes some detours. “In the current of your life, I was an eyelash in the shipping lanes,” she declares in the epic duet with Mark Lanegan, “The Curse of the I-5 Corridor,” which moves from love song to time-traveling mystery (!) and back to the single person’s lament, “Maybe I should go home alone tonight.”
The fisherman’s tale-love song “Oracle of the Maritimes” starts out sweet, but grows stormy and intense. And the waves of the music and the beauty of her delivery almost carry you past lines like, “I’m not even wearing underwear.” Almost.
The striking lyrics may snap the listener out of the moment the first few times, but eventually they become part of the unique tapestry that Case always weaves. Whether it is as part of New Pornographers or in her recent collaboration with k.d. lang and Laura Veirs, who both appear on this album as well, Case is at her best when she takes an existing form and gives it her own twist.
The charming single “Bad Luck” updates girl group sweetness from the ‘60s with a bit of modern-day Europop from Peter, Bjorn & John’s Bjorn Yttling, who coproduced half the album with Case. The giddy surroundings help put a list of bummers in perspective, though she still tries to make a broader point (and drops in a line about a “one-legged seagull") asking, “Tired of trying to make everyone happy? Too tired to sing your own song?”
It’s just part of what makes Case’s “Hell-On” seem so heavenly.