Neko Case – Hell-On review

Secret Meeting score: 83

by Joseph Purcell

A full five years on from her last solo release, the vulnerably personal, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, Neko Case returns fully armed with a plethora of diverse, enchanting and enriching tracks on her self-produced album, Hell-On. From the opening exquisitely delivered lines, ‘God is not a contract or a guy, God is an unspecified tide’, the title track from Hell-On creates an indelible platform from which Case will weave, preach and seduce the listener for the next 52 minutes over her moody, punchy, thought provoking and delightfully luscious canvas of sound.

The whimsical floating sound of the title track provides a perfect introduction to one of Case’s most accomplished works. Built on a structure of a sonically deep bass drum that explodes intermittently like claps of thunder echoing in the silent expanse of the night, it creeps and stalks before hitting the whirring crescendo at the two-minute mark. Then breaks into a delightful serenade that lurches into a wall of throbbing sound, before finally concluding in the same way the track began, waltzing subtly around the anchor of Case’s tremendous delivery.

Last Lion of Albion bustles along next, providing one of those signature understated Case moments that teeters beautifully on the edge of ferocity, while flirting with spite, but instead somehow ends up a perfectly delivered pop gem. A gentle, simply plucked guitar continues the beautiful structure and flow of Hell-On with the Stevie Nicks-evoking, Halls of Sarah. It allows Case, just like on many of Nicks’ finest moments, to display the full range of her fascinating, yet, equally haunting delivery, through a song that starts gently, but bursts with urgency and layers of additional instrumentation that adds to the masterful vociferous sound, and the backing howls of ‘Sarahhhhhhhh’.

The all-out pop stomper, Bad Luck, provides the next shot of Case’s full array of musical talents, with an incredible cascading vocal that bursts at the two-and-a-half-minute mark into a Belle and Sebastian infused snapshot of joyous pop. The chugging energy and cloudy murkiness of Gumball Blue provides a change of pace, before the churning acoustic guitar of Oracle of the Maritimes grips the album. Case espouses throughout the track ‘come on sweet girl let’s find you an ocean’, reverberating and echoing throughout the song created on the foundations of the incessant pounding drum line from the excellent array of musicians Case has brought together for the creation of Hell-On.

Unlike many, Case has always embraced the idea of collaboration in her work, from her contributions to the Canadian musical collective New Pornographers, along with joint records with Laura Veirs and KD Lang, and Hell-On features more of the same. Two of the finest moments in an album packed with highlights feature ex-Screaming Trees troubadour, Mark Lanegan – on the sublime Curse of the I-5 Corridor – and ex-Crooked Fingers and Archers of Loaf leader, Eric Bachman.

Curse of the I-5 Corridor is most assuredly the centrepiece of the record, and the marriage of Case with the irrepressible solemn tones of Mark Lanegan creates five minutes of musical euphoria as their voices are beautifully entwined-  a phenomenal track featuring two of the very best creating music at its very finest. As Case prompts, ‘I left home and wanted to be who I wanted to be, fucked every guy I wanted to be’ the strength of their voices dominates large swathes until the music totally drops, leaving Case and Lanegan in an echoing dialogue of reflection and regret, enhancing the song further.

In contrast to Curse of the I-5 Corridor, the second collaboration from Hell-On is a gentler affair. Beginning with a delightful piano intro, Sleep All Summer, finds Case reimagining and reworking Eric Bachmans’ Crooked Fingers hit. Both Bachman and Case evolve throughout the track, beautifully managing to add to the original, giving it a deeper emotion to a song already laced with turmoil. As with Lanegan, their voices are beautifully instep and offer a succinct quality to a terrific piece of song writing.

Hell-On is a returning triumph for Neko Case. Somehow, she is often overlooked in discussions regarding contemporary female singer-songwriters, however, Hell-On fantastic patchwork of songs that stand individually as unique moments and as a body of work to more than prove she’s in the big league with the likes of St Vincent, PJ Harvey and Bjork. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another five years for its follow up.

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