Spin Control


March 5, 2006


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 in Tucson.)

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 taps.

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.

Jim DeRogatis