Has it really been two and a half years since Neko Case's second solo album, Furnace Room Lullaby
, hit the streets? Ironically, Case's near-constant presence in the indie-music public eye has probably had less to do with Lullaby
's staying power than with the timely arrival, broad appeal and critical success of the New Pornographers' Mass Romantic
. Between those albums, the Corn Sisters' The Other Women
, the hard-to-find, kitchen-recorded 2001 EP Canadian Amp
and her presence on various soundtrack, compilation and tribute albums, Case has kept fame's fire burning. The question is, after her recent spate of comparatively light-hearted material, will fans be expecting Blacklisted
This is not a cheerful record. Borrowing a page from labelmate Kelly Hogan's playbook, Case has assembled one serious bummer of an album -- dark, intimate, moody and a bit grim. Rooted solidly in traditional country music, but imbued with an almost David Lynchian sense of stillness and isolation, Blacklisted is an unflinching look at heartbreak and loneliness. It's the musical equivalent of that disconnected feeling you get in the first few days after a catastrophic breakup: everything's hazy and a little unreal, and you're nagged by the mindless hope of denial -- the idea that if you go to sleep, the world will be back to the way it should be when you wake up.
Most of Blacklisted's world is painted in shades of dreamy, pre-dawn grey, accented with blurry, reverb-soaked guitar, plummy banjo-plucks and sighing pedal steel. Moving from fleshed-out country-folk ("Things That Scare Me") to lush, spiritual-aping twang ("Deep Red Bells"' coda) to deeply-layered, anticipatory pop ("Lady Pilot"), Case seems relaxed; her voice, declamatory and matter of fact for the disc's broodier songs, shifts to a honeyed, faintly nasal tone when pushed a little harder. At her most confident, she's as strident as a fire-and-brimstone preacher, but her message is far more persuasive (see "Pretty Girls"); on other songs, like the title track and "Ghost Writing", she lingers languidly in the blurry wake of the rhythm like Loretta Lynn fronting Mazzy Star. Both approaches are effective, and Blacklisted balances them well.
It also unleashes a pair of choice covers. "Look For Me (I'll Be Around)"'s smoky, hallucinogenic lounge-style twang stops the album dead, but in the best possible way; sure, it's a Sarah Vaughan-shaped fish out of water here, but it's also a timely reminder that Case can own a room when her material requires it. "Runnin' Out of Fools" (best known as an Aretha Franklin song) is an even bigger vocal showcase, and Case belts it out so powerfully that every no-good guy within speaker-range will wonder who just slapped him.
In addition to her usual collaborators (most notably Jon Rauhouse, Tom Ray, Hogan and the Sadies' Dallas Good), Case enlisted the services of Howe Gelb, Brian Connelly and Calexico's John Convertino and Joey Burns to give Blacklisted a less predictable sound. The result is an album that never quite plays by the usual alt-country rules -- a hazy but vivid cinematic flashback that may be too prickly and downbeat for New Pornographers fans. If you take your pleasure from the sheer palpability of the music -- the way it walks icy fingers up and down your spine, and paints pictures in the air, so real you could step into them -- Blacklisted will enjoy a long, happy stay in your CD player. If you're listening purely for mood enhancement, however, you might want to pop a few prozac tabs before giving it a spin.