ROUTES & BRANCHES
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
June 10, 2018
Scott Foley, purveyor of ash
Routes & Branches is a boldly different force in the world of roots music. Much of the reason for this is that we cast our net across a more vast and diverse range of music than just about any other roots-oriented blog. While there's a good chance every single roots music program everywhere is giving airtime to the new collaboration between Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmore, few are cushioning it between more "roots-adjacent" acts like Ryley Walker, Arthur Buck or Neko Case. Sure, this week we feature great new stuff from Jason Isbell and Devil Makes Three, but stick around for Andrew Combs covering the Strokes, and for M Ward's surprise record!
Upon the release of her new Hell-on collection, Neko Case told Billboard, "It takes a long time to know what you're doing sometimes. I could not write my thesis on this album yet, that's for sure. But I feel good about it." Me too, Neko.
Nothing on her seventh studio record is in the running for 2018's Song of the Summer. There's nothing to dance to, nothing to drink for. Let's be honest, as impactful as she's been since the debut of The Virginian in 1998, Neko Case has released music that's been relevant, fascinating, challenging and theatrical, but never easy and rarely "pretty".
There are beautiful moments on Hell-on. "Sleep All Summer" is a meltingly gorgeous cover of a Crooked Fingers track, with Neko carrying the lines originally delivered by Emma Pollock and Eric Bachmann reprising his role as ... well, as Eric Bachmann. I would change for you / But babe that doesn't mean I'm gonna be a better man. While I know of few noises this year that have been as lovely, the song actually serves as a bit of a disruption on an album that can be abstract and untamed.
It's hard to imagine, f'rinstance, a crowd singing along with the refrain of "My Uncle's Navy": Mercurochrome and merthiolate stains, oh! And yet, Hell-on might stand as the most fiercely uncompromised musical statement of Neko Case's career. The title cut sets the tone with a waltz-time procession that strikes an unpredictable and indelicate balance. She's always been a powerful vocalist, and Case has never sounded as nimble as she does in navigating these minor keys and morphing rhythms. "Hell-on" also serves to introduce many of the collection's themes, from nature to agency, cruelty to empowerment. The natural world is presented as an un-fuck-with-able force: You'll not be my master / You're barely my guest. And the already oft-quoted lyric: God is a lusty tire fire.
"Bad Luck" is another of Hell-on's more accessible pieces, a rubbery, upbeat groove buoyed by girl-group harmonies. More common is "Gumball Blue", a collaboration with Case's New Pornographers' coworker AC Newman. It's a song that bubbles with pop melody and 80s synth waves, but countered by wry Elvis Costello-esque angular bits: Sometimes where there's smoke / There's just a smoke machine honey. See also the indie folk of "Halls of Sarah", one of many tunes dwelling on women as warrior, muse, force of nature. You see our poets / Do an odious business / Loving womankind / As lions love Christians. Familiar guitar, piano and drum lines are accompanied by more otherworldly skronks and swooshes.
Remarkable music is being made throughout this record. The presence of Case's collaborators is essential, from Joey Burns' piano and low strings, Barbara Gruska's percussion and co-producer Bjorn Yttling's keys and guitars. And Hell-on's array of vocalists serves as a Greek chorus of sorts for this album-length travelogue: frequent co-conspirators like Rachel Flotard, kd lang, Laura Veirs, Nora O'Connor and Case's secret weapon, Kelly Hogan. In addition to her session with Eric Bachman, there are duets with Beth Ditto and Mark Lanegan. Based on the sprawling "Curse of the I-5 Corridor", he and Case might do well to consider future work together.
I'll be honest, I don't care to psychoanalyze an artist's work, to parse their lyrics and plumb for hidden meaning. I'll leave that to better journalists like the New York Times, which recently ran an excellent expose and interview. I prefer to simply lay an exceptional lyric out for all to see, and there are several on this tangled but rewarding record. You'd have to extend your search into the world of literature to find another writer like Case. From "Winnie": Her mouth was as sharp as the rib of a star. The cumulative effect of Hell-on is that of a personal mythology, shattered scattered and gathered.
It's common knowledge that the recording of Neko Case's new CD coincided with her Vermont home being destroyed by fire. While it's interesting to regard these works in the light of that episode, with all that's happening in the world I would argue that Hell-on would have been the same project if the artist's barn remained standing. Even though these eccentric songs don't make for easy listening, repeated exposure will reveal a greater coherence and musical resonance to the proceedings. That said, it's likely that the ideas and the spirit of Neko Case's new work will echo around our days more than the choruses.
When I am dark and I am down as I am now / The only thing that makes me smile is to remember / That I'm beloved of the wild / And may you ever return / To the warmth of your species
^ Neko Case w/Eric Bachman, "Sleep All Summer" Hell-on (Anti, 18)
- Iron & Wine, "Tree By the River" Kiss Each Other Clean (Warner, 10)
- Phil Cook, "Miles Away" People Are My Drug (Psychic Hotline, 18)
- Tami Neilson, "Manitoba Sunrise at Motel 6" Sassafrass (Outside, 18) D
- Jeffrey Foucault, "Blown" Blood Brothers (Tone Tree, 18)
- Kim Richey, "Pin a Rose" Edgeland (Yep Roc, 18)
- Andrew Combs, "Reptilia" 5 Covers & a Song EP (New West, 18) D
- Pat Reedy & Longtime Goners, "Nashville Tennessee at 3am" That's All There Is (Muddy Roots, 18)
- Dwight Yoakam, "Pretty Horses" single (Reprise, 18)
- Jesse Dayton, "Jailhouse Religion" The Outsider (Blue Elan, 18)
- James McMurtry, "Six Year Drought" Childish Things (Lightning Rod, 05)
- Shannon Shaw, "Broke My Own" Shannon in Nashville (Easy Eye, 18) D
- I See Hawks in LA, "Last Man in Tujunga" Live and Never Learn (ISHiLA, 18)
- Brent Cobb, "Providence Canyon" Providence Canyon (Elektra, 18)
- John Calvin Abney, "Cowboys & Canyon Queens" Coyote (Abney, 18)
- Romantica, "Dear Caroline" Outlaws (La Traviata, 18)
- Ana Egge, "Girls Girls Girls" White Tiger (StorySound, 18)
- M Ward, "Miracle Man' What a Wonderful Industry (M Ward, 18) D
- Jess Williamson, "White Bird" Cosmic Wink (Mexican Summer, 18) D
- Paul Cauthen, "Lil Son" Have Mercy EP (Lightning Rod, 18)
- Milk Carton Kids, "Younger Years" All the Things That I Did ... (Anti, 18)
- Nathan Salsburg, "Timoney's" Third (No Quarter, 18) D
- Jason Isbell, "The Assassin" Sirens of the Ditch Deluxe Edition (New West, 18) D
- Devil Makes Three, "Paint My Face" Chains Are Broken (New West, 18) D
- Swamp Dogg, "Sam Stone" Cuffed Collared & Tagged (Fat Possum, 72)
- Juanita Stein, "Easy Street" Until the Lights Fade (Nude, 18)
- Lori McKenna, "Young and Angry Again" The Tree (CN, 18)
- Vic Chesnutt w/Lambchop, "Replenished" Salesman & Bernadette (Ghetto Bells, 98)
- Dillon Carmichael, "It's Simple" Hell On An Angel (Riser House, 18)
- NQ Arbuckle, "Sleepy Wife" Future Happens Anyway (Six Shooter, 14)