Neko Case, "Fox
Confessor Brings the Flood" (Anti) ***1/2
"Better times collide with
now / And better times... better times... are coming still," former child of
the Pacific Northwest, part-time Chicagoan, sometimes New Pornographer and
full-time alt-country goddess Neko Case sings in the hammer-blow ending of
the haunting and nearly a cappella "A Widow's Toast." One of several
incredibly powerful moments on her fourth full studio solo album, it hits
you with the unexpected impact of an I.E.D., encapsulating the mood of the
entire disc: Standing at the edge of despair, brooding on self-destructive
or murderous thoughts, Case suddenly turns her energies toward the most
life-affirming act she can think of -- singing her heart out.
Overall, "Fox Confessor
Brings the Flood" is a slower, sleepier, less immediately endearing and much
more somber affair than 2000's "Furnace Room Lullaby" or 2002's
"Blacklisted," and 2004's covers-heavy live album "The Tigers Have Spoken"
is a positively gleeful bacchanal in comparison. But Case's powerful and
increasingly well-employed voice is such a stellar and seductive instrument
that it wins you over in any setting, and it keeps you coming back to even
the darkest tunes here until you begin to appreciate the rays of light
offered by the sensitive backing of Chicago stalwarts Tom Ray on bass, Jon
Rauhouse on pedal steel and Kelly Hogan on backing vocals, as well as
celebrated guests such as Garth Hudson, the legendary organist of the Band,
and Howe Gelb of Arizona cult favorites Giant Sand. (The disc was recorded
Fans of murder ballads
and/or the country-Gothic vibe will swoon over "Margaret vs. Pauline,"
"Dirty Knife" and "John Saw That Number." I prefer the more uplifting
grooves of "The Needle Has Landed," "That Teenage Feeling" and "Lion's Jaw,"
but then maybe I'm a Pollyanna -- or maybe I've just never experienced the
level of heartbreak and the subsequent fear and loathing Case so easily
Stereolab, "Fab Four
Suture" (Too Pure/Beggars Banquet) ***
Although it wasn't even
crafted to stand as a proper album -- timed to promote the current North
American tour, this disc is half a collection of previously released
singles, and half new material that will simultaneously be released on
10-inch vinyl -- the latest from entrancing underground heroes Stereolab
follows the pattern of previous "odds 'n' sods" anthologies such as 1992's
"Switched On" by standing as one of the group's most satisfying discs,
easily bettering its last "real" album, 2004's "Margerine Eclipse."
The groove- and
drone-happy art-rock combo understandably lost its footing for a time after
the 2002 death of keyboardist and backing vocalist Mary Hansen, though even
before that tragedy, it had been suffering from a relatively tuneless
extended flirtation with "post-rock" pretensions, a la Chicago's Tortoise.
Thankfully, the dozen joyfully catchy and exceedingly effervescent tracks
here find singer Laetitia Sadier and guitarist Martin Gane reconnecting with
their muse, as well as taking stock of their most successful experiments
during the last 16 years, with elements of their early metronomic Krautrock
rhythms, their later forays into funk or disco, and the best of their
bubbling ambient instrumentals.