As the great American poet Wallace Stevens once wrote, there is a certain misery you can detect in the sound of the winter wind. The Spin was put in mind of Stevens’ early poem “The Snow Man” as we made our way to Cannery Ballroom Wednesday night to hear singer and songwriter Neko Case. After breaking through with her 2006 full-length Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Case has become a poet of sometimes bleak physical and emotional landscapes. To borrow Stevens’ turn of phrase, Case has a “mind of winter,” and she explores loss, depression and other wintry subjects on her new The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You. Being a product of the rock ‘n’ roll era, Case also writes about some subjects Stevens ignored: She sings about 20-year-old telephone calling cards and the drugs her brain makes to keep her moving slowly. Case is a concise writer, but she couches her insights in music that often seems designed to communicate ambivalence.
Nashville singer Karen Elson opened for Case, and proved herself a credible folk-blues-country performer. Backed by guitarist Mark Watrous and multi-instrumentalist Bucky Baxter, Elson played rhythm guitar and sang as if she were a 1960s coffeehouse folkie. The British-born singer, fashion model and currently estranged Jack White spouse brought out a couple of new tunes that had a minor-key, folk-blues feel, and we noted how deftly she avoided excessive vibrato and other vocal mannerisms. Elson sounded more like an American country singer than she did, say, Joan Baez, and she joined Cory Chisel and Adriel Denae of Wandering Sons on a version of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s 1971 country hit “After the Fire Is Gone.”
Case came onstage to pre-recorded sounds that reminded us of submarines sending distress signals to the world above, and began her set with “Where Did I Leave That Fire” from The Worse Things Get. She continued with “This Tornado Loves You” from 2009's Middle Cyclone as well as another new tune, “Bracing for Sunday.” With her crack band providing backing that was unadorned and subtle, Case made the most of her spooky chord changes. As her recent records demonstrate, Case often writes songs that use a loping 6/8 time signature, and she also favors a modified shuffle that seems to fold back upon itself in stops and starts.
Case’s rhythms provide a strange, unstable stability, while her melodies often play tricks with standard patterns. Throughout the set, the songs were usually short, as if she and her band were moving from vignette to vignette within a larger context. In this respect, Case followed the example of The Worse Things Get, on which most of the songs run around three minutes. At times, the extreme concision of the tunes reminded us that Case sometimes has a tendency to repeat melodic ideas. In fact, her records since Fox Confessor use the same basic materials, and there were times when the impact of individual songs was somewhat blurred by this approach.
With longtime vocal partner Kelly Hogan providing expert support, Case and band played the Middle Cyclone track “People Got a Lotta Nerve.” They performed another Fox Confessor song, “Teenage Feeling,” and nailed the new record’s “Man,” which demonstrates Case’s flair for reworking standard ’50s rock ’n’ roll chord changes. Meanwhile, “Deep Red Bells,” a track from Case’s 2002 release Blacklisted, served as a reminder of her ability to use song form in unorthodox ways.
Although she’s a very good singer, it could be that Case sometimes repeats vocal effects — there were moments during the set when we wished she would vary her approach, even if that sacrificed some of her famed vocal purity. With Case, we think this is all rather tricky, since she usually operates on the line between impressionism and narrative. What Case and her band often present is a sound that exists independently of individual songs or lyrical content. However, her songs do come through more strongly and distinctly on her records, where there is more room for nuance.
So it was no surprise to us that the best performance of the night was of what may be the best song on The Worse Things Get. Classically constructed, “Night Still Comes” received a superb reading by Case & Co. The song’s 3/4 meter complemented lyrics about the inevitable distance between human beings who want to connect. “You never held me at the right angle,” Case sang, and we felt it.
Case got called back for an encore that included the Fox Confessor song “Maybe Sparrow,” which she began by playing the ending first. It seemed an appropriate way to end a show that defied notions of conventional time and space, and proved that Case’s mind of winter has its reverse, summer side.