July 19, 2010

Neko Case – Blacklisted
alt-country, singer/songwriter

All the gusto, confidence and vocal prowess that made 2000’s Furnace Room Lullaby such an immense delight were delivered two-fold on its followup, the exceptional Blacklisted. On her earlier works, it would’ve been a ridiculous understatement to claim that Case’s voice “showed promise”, yet Blacklisted saw her surge upward to an unexpected echelon that fewNeko Case - Blacklisted vocalists ever reach. With Case’s voice demanding such attention, however, it’s important not to overlook the instrumentation and song structures upon which it’s anchored, with lonely slide guitar, banjo, acoustic strums and ghostly percussion providing a lush, Southern twang that’s filled with nostalgia and warmth, yet also a hint of noir. Case’s songwriting has definitely taken a step upward as well, with songs like “Deep Red Bells”, “Lady Pilot”, “Stinging Velvet” and her lovely covers of “Look for Me (I’ll Be Around)” and “Running Out of Fools” displaying an impressive grasp on the craft, often trading in twisty melodies and multi-part complexity, while still retaining their accessibility and a full emotional charge. “Deep Red Bells” deserves special mention for being possibly a career-best performance.



July 5, 2010

Smog – A River Ain’t Too Much to Love
singer/songwriter, folk, country

After carving out a prolific niche as a subdued, lo-fi, singer-songwriter type, A River Ain’t Too Much to Love was enough to make you think that Bill Callahan had been a lonesome cowboy his entire life. The folksy, country boy schtick fits him perfectly, with Bill’s ultra-deep, charismatic vocal being surprisingly reminiscent of Johnny Cash, even if he does stick mostly to spoken-word delivery, letting his guitar do all the melodic heavy-lifting. It’s really refreshing to hear Callahan sounding mellowed-out and content – even happy at times – as Smog - A River Ain't Too Much to Loveit makes for an interesting contrast against the often dark themes and stark production of his previous works. A River Ain’t Too Much to Love feels like a comfortable album, arguably the most natural fit of Callahan’s career, but I also consider it his most accomplished. The production is sublime, retaining Smog’s usual minimalist style but making it sound dense and layered, which allows for those distant, wistful touches that can be a lot harder to nail when everything sounds equally “up-front”. If you combine that with the best songwriting of his career – “Palimpsest”, “The Well”, “Rock Bottom Riser”, “I Feel Like the Mother of the World” and “Let Me See the Colts” are some of the best things he’s ever written – you get Callahan’s true masterpiece, and it’s an under-acknowledged one at that.