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A Voice Unfettered

Neko Case and the Abolition of Plasticized Music

by KATHLEEN WALLACE

It may be a tired complaint, that the baseline norm for musicians today is to be a multi-media package creation. I’m sure to some extent it has been this way for quite a long time, but it still holds true that most of the formed notes that fall from any radio dial today come from not-quite human voices, amped and flexed through the manipulation of nerdy (not the good kind) technicians. The package is there to provide earworm type melodies, and if they are a big enough act, then are required to also provide Imperial distraction in the form of things like naughty (not the good kind) antics that involve items like foam fingers.

There is, of course, a remedy to all that for those willing to look and this week at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, Kansas–such a welcome drink of water was there to be had. I’m speaking of Neko Case, voice enormous enough to envelop all needs, even ones you didn’t know that you had. She is on tour at this time with her new album which has a name longer than I am able to type. She would be worth seeing absolutely anywhere, including eavesdropping on her shower, not that I would recommend that sort of thing, it’s illegal and it was just an example (I’m being careful here in case of readers with “boundary issues”). But the setting of Liberty Hall is an especially sweet one; the venue being in the Free State town that didn’t die after Quantrill’s raiders made their attempt to snuff it out, killing 150+  men and boys during the “Bleeding Kansas” days. The hall occupies the corner of the former “Herald of Freedom”–the first abolitionist newspaper in Kansas. So the fact that this downtown has weathered not only suburbia, but actual murderous rampages is actually pretty fucking cool.

But back to Neko Case. Her fans are loyal (if not weird, opening act Jeremy Messersmith made mention after the show that one of them asked to touch his armpit and then threw $10 at him). If you aren’t familiar with her style (and it could never be properly pigeonholed), I would say it is angst ridden indie-Americana with an ample sense of humor, delivered by a throat that you just can’t process the physics of. The power of the thing seems unlikely to be coming from such a diminutive source. It should come from, something, I don’t know—more like a red giant star. Older tunes of hers like “Maybe Sparrow” and “I Wish I was the Moon” filled the theater with not just exquisite and gorgeous howls, but a thick and palpable emotion that is lacking in so much current music. Her lyrics could be presented as poetry that comes from a brilliant, but slightly weary source.

Neko also had a few from her new album including “Night Still Comes”, a beautiful and self effacing tune, consciously ribbing her ability to put forth such thought provoking beauty, “If I puked up some sonnets, would you call me a miracle?” But her talent is a miracle for its rarity.

Her sense of humor is as unfettered as her voice; she shared some recently acquired wisdom from another that a banjo is nothing but a guitar that wants to show you a dead body. Her rambling musings about Santa’s hottie shop with leather aprons gave a brief glimpse of the very (to borrow from John Kennedy Toole) rich “inner life” that she possesses.

And with a voice large enough to encompass at least 9 divas; she shows absolutely no evidence of such behavior. A few funny glitches peppered the show, one being in the midst of the searing “Deep Red Bells”–a song about a serial killer complete with screaming imagery, including souls “casting about like old paper bags”. Very dark stuff, with the most incredibly ominous backbone. Well, the helper fellow who was bringing her out guitar switches (from acoustic to electric and such between songs) happened out during a dramatic lull in the tune to earnestly present her with an electric. It was a ridiculous moment and poor Neko couldn’t help but giggle. Not really the right time to come out arms forward with the electric selection. She announced “that was the sweetest thing ever”. She struggled to get back to the mindset of death with this unexpected absurdity. In showing that she must be a purely good soul, she insisted on hugging the guy to make him feel better after this goofy action. Her self effacing banter was refreshing too, coming from someone who could obviously play the beauty game, she came out in comfortable looking leggings, even if they were “slippery pants” and no nod to Cosmo created beauty requirements. And thus, she was more gorgeous than any of the aching players of that game.

I would be incredibly remiss if I didn’t mention the wise, wise choice in obtaining Jeremy Messersmith from Minnesota as the opening act. I was not familiar with his work, but was enchanted rapidly with his honeysuckle drop sweetness and earnest lyrics. One struck me hard, it must be from an upcoming album because I couldn’t find it anywhere during a later search…… The lyrics spoke to breaking someone’s heart, sounding like pretty typical pop-py sacharine at first. This was a very wrong assessment. He continued with items like “he won’t invest the time to break it, but I will” (this is from memory since I can’t find this song), then he goes on to line up all the ways he will love her (for life) in every way possible. Your mind falls back to–how is this breaking a heart? Then he mournfully ends with “and then I will die first and leave you all alone”. This had the kick of a “done because we are too meeny” sort of moment. When you give yourself over to a book, a song—certain times a phrase or comment can hit you (as trite as it sounds) right in the heart. I am sure it is the reason the center of emotion was believed from ancients on to be in the heart….it’s because you really do feel certain hits there and that small moment hit mine, an avowed hater of love songs.

But don’t let me make you think that Messersmith is all about sadness; he’s got a wry sense of humor. His “Someday, Someone” is both hilarious and the antidote to any kind of post modern cynical crust that might have accumulated on the listener. Well, maybe that’s over the top. He said it was really just an after dinner mint.

But as Neko sings–

“Catch a, catch a, catch a, catch a falling star, But wash your hands of it Catch a, catch a, catch a, catch a falling star Because you can’t hold it”.

And the ethereal voice is gone all to soon in an evening of music. But she is still out there crooning, beckoning—succumb to the call and listen to her live.

Kathleen Wallace writes out of the US Midwest and can be reached at klwallace@riseup.net