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Neko Case

On the heels of her scattershot and trigger-happy 1997 debut, The Virginian (Bloodshot), Case trumped the sophomore slump with a jaw-dropping heartbreaker of a follow-up, 2000's Furnace Room Lullaby (Bloodshot). Now Blacklisted proves that for Neko, the third time is less a charm than a delicious curse.

This is not cowpunk, retrobilly or y'allternative. It's not trendy, shticky, or ironic in the least. What it is, however, is harder to classify. The roots of the songs Blacklisted comprises reach back to blues and torch balladry, jazz and soul and gospel, with room for only a little of the rambunctious country style Case once favored. Here, tempos are mostly slow and keys minor; only on the twangy rocker "Stinging Velvet" does Case unleash her band to attack a song on the run. Their restraint may be cued by Case, who since Furnace Room Lullaby has clearly learned to sing. No longer content to merely blow off the doors, she shows vastly increased vocal range and command. Here she's a cappella, there falsetto, later tracking her own lead vocal. And although she can still wail — just listen to Neko's knockout-punch take on the Aretha Franklin hit "Runnin' Out of Fools" — the album's most sublime moments come when she's laid-back, as in "I Wish I Was the Moon." The song's opening verses float from her throat over a sparsely strummed guitar. As she pauses for a breath, another guitar arcs out of the mix. Brushes hopscotch across a snare. A slide wobbles, seasick, down the strings of a pedal steel. The melody blooms, and Case leans into the lines: "How will you know that you've found me at last?/ 'Cause I'll be the one, be the one, be the one/ With my heart in my lap."

With each album, Case has crafted a more intimate, personal statement while placing ever more emphasis on the unique contributions of her guest players. Ron Sexsmith, Travis Good (of The Sadies), Brian Connelly (Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet), and even Ryan Adams chipped in on Furnace Room Lullaby. For Blacklisted, Case recruited the encyclopedic and extra-sensory sidemen John Convertino and Joe Burns of Calexico and Giant Sand to assist her touring duo — steel guitarist Jon Rauhouse and bassist Tom Ray — and recorded at their home base, Wavelab Studios in Tucson. Along with Giant Sand's Howe Gelb, The Sadies' spooky-surf-guitar guru Dallas Good, and Case's fellow Chicago chanteuse Kelly Hogan, these players did just what most session pros are taught to abhor: they played and sang unique, soulful parts, most of them uncharted and many first takes. In the process each of them claimed a little corner of Case's album for their own — and immeasurably advanced her vision.

However important Case's collaborators were, though, their roles were reduced in at least one important way. In the past, Case wrote lyrics but relied on other musicians to elaborate on her rudimentary melodies; here, she wrote both words and music for each of the original tunes. And Blacklisted proves that Case's musicianship has evolved alongside her songwriting skills; no longer just a brassy chick singer, she's credited with electric and acoustic tenor and six-string guitars, piano, saw, drums and percussion.

Most of all, though, Blacklisted is a restless record. Whether hurtling along the interstate, skulking through an alley, or plummeting in a plane, its characters are always in motion — or longing, at least, to be anywhere but here. "Does your soul cast about like an old paper bag," Case queries, "past empty lots and early graves?" The songs themselves sound haunted; vocals glow through veils of reverb. Dry beats skitter beneath whistling steel or woozy Wurlitzer. She sounds doomed, but Case hardly dreads it: "You've made it all so very dangerous," she breathes. "I can't stay away."

by Anders Smith Lindall

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