When Neko Case released her first album in 1997, she came out as a full-fledged, captivating singer-songwriter. For her next several records, she was a chanteuse wading ever deeper into the murky waters of noir alternative country. Her songs were apt accompaniment for chain-smoking in a rundown motel or driving through the woods on moonless nights. She’d occasionally break from the mold of her solo work to dabble with the indie popsters The New Pornographers. Yet Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, dropping in 2006, is where she truly emerged from her chrysalis. This stunning album stands as a demarcation in her career; all of her work could be labeled pre- and post- its existence.

The 12 songs that make up Fox Confessor are largely brief; their stories delivered as impressionistic vignettes. The plots arrive like a vintage Polaroid photo, swapping young lovers’ hands as they shake it between themselves, sitting atop a car’s hood on a rural summer dusk (listen to “That Teenage Feeling” and try not envisioning this). The characters occupying the album’s narratives are offered in glimpses, their conflicts and motivations subjectively gleaned from scarce details and emotional punctuation. This is not to say the stories are ill-conceived. On the contrary, Case’s tales are rife with intrigue, offering just enough to entice listeners into filling in the gaps.

Case displays an atypical approach to song structure. Melodies flit about, verses go uninterrupted by refrains and hooks often arrive near the end of songs. Catchy motifs occur once or twice, leaving listeners with a yearning for a reprise that doesn’t come. The depth of styles — in terms of interwoven musical genres, lyrical concerns and emotive resonance — is striking. Gospel, dirty country-western, pop, classic balladry and ‘70s rock all factor in. In an odd achievement, the album sounds contemporary and yet apart, as thought it’s from some bygone era. With the dalliances between hope and despair, love and loathing, rightful indignation and sardonic regret, Case provides glimpses into the damaged lives of her songs’ narrators. Rather than such diversity resulting in a scattered record, it makes each song represent a different person’s perspective, as though they’re all residents of the same small town.

The album starts strong, perhaps too strong for its own good, with a stellar opening three-song salvo. “Margaret vs. Pauline” unfurls with restrained instrumentation, the lackadaisical guitar strumming, sparse piano notes and brushed drums creates a winsome mood and gives room for Case to paint an intimate depiction of class divide. With the focus on her mellifluous voice, she uses the titular characters to contrast between the affluent and self-absorbed Pauline, whose major hardship is leaving a sweater on a train, with the disenfranchised Margaret, who “lost three fingers at the cannery.” It’s as astute in its simplicity as it is haunting.

Second cut “Star Witness” features a cast of characters zeroed-in on for flashes of their struggles. Shuffling, mid-tempo drums and boozy guitars set the template as Case’s voice floats above the light clamor, the melody drifting about like a discarded shawl on the wind. At times, the lyrics’ meaning is arcane, yet the imagery is evocative enough to surpass literal interpretation. The verses build a pressure that begs for relief, finding its catharsis in the effervescent refrain. Case’s layered vocals become the transcendence she sings of in describing a woman immortal in her own voice, all while cautioning about the dandy wolves lurking about who would ruin her splendor. The last verse, before the song trickles out, is a heartbreaking thesis statement. Case’s voice grows defiant as she portrays the mundane late night slaying of a man on a city street. Her indignation doesn’t just stem from the killing but from the indifference it garners from being commonplace, not even warranting the attention of TV crews or police. On its heels is the record’s finest track, “Hold On, Hold On,” a spaghetti western electric guitar line spitting grit as the cantering rhythm cuts a path through a sandy terrain. The song is Case at her most autobiographical and deprecating. She walks the tightrope between bemoaning and affirming her self-destructive tendencies. Traversing scenery while being perceived as a bride of the devil (and embracing the role), she pushes aside bad-blooded relatives and leaves a party gratefully alone. The narrator is an unholy and unapologetic wreck. “That echo chorus lied to me/ With its ‘Hold on, hold on, hold on’,” Case sings with the sincerity of one given over to darkness.

The record reels back and allows the subsequent numbers to simmer with more subtlety than the first trio’s immediacy. “That Teenage Feeling” epitomizes youthful nostalgia, wistful but compelling a resigned smile to crease one’s lips. “I don’t care if forever never comes,” Case sings as the hook rises, before delivering the punch of “[‘Cause I’m holding out/ For that teenage feeling,” her voice suddenly swept up in fleeting harmonies. The title track is all dour tones and fairytale visuals, rife with the dread and suspense that serve as the underbelly for such yarns. “Lion’s Jaws,” with its disarmingly breezy instrumentation, likewise features fairytale themes of naiveté being swallowed by a cunning predator (not surprising, Case has said she was inspired by Eastern European tales for this record).

The closing trio of songs is as powerful as the opening one, albeit not as overtly. “Maybe Sparrow” offers cool foreboding in its cello and violin interplay, above which Case delivers a fable of the titular bird ignoring her warnings of marauding hawks. Think of it as a creepy lullaby. Beneath the surface, a watery organ hypnotizes while Case plants seeds of optimism in the song’s more energized outro. Penultimate track “At Last” is a poem of acceptance set above a soft acoustic strum, almost over before it begins. It cleanses the palate for the closer, “The Needle Has Landed.” This song is a spiritual sequel to “Hold On, Hold On,” autobiographical with its references to Case’s childhood home of Washington state but finding her in a more confident state. It starts tempered, though tension is palpable. The tug-of-war between lost love, regret, and wanderlust roil together and push the song along. Case’s voice is like a curlicue of smoke above the pulsating drum pattern, winding guitar, and forlorn strings. Assuming the role of a pariah returning home a victor, Case jibes hecklers who previously clawed at the Bible looking for means to banish her, now brandishing some well-earned self-assurance. It’s a road song for driving through your hometown, not stopping as your tires kick up gravel behind you. As such, it’s the perfect way to wrap an album of visiting touchstones and characters, seeing the sights, and moving on better than when you arrived.

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