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“They’re all so happy to hear that I’ve done wrong,” Neko Case once sang about nosy neighbors titillated by rumors of scandalous extracurriculars, “I’m surprised they don’t come over and thank me.” The title of her third solo album might portend more scarlet-woman blues (and so, perhaps, does the red-letter banner emblazoned on the disc itself: “BEAVER”), but the shimmering country-noir of Blacklisted instead casts the shadows of nocturnal exiles, their names crossed out in the book of life. Onward from the galloping 12-string and banjo of the opener, “Things That Scare Me,” everybody’s running in sodden shoes, through canyons and empty lots, out of auto crashes and plane wrecks, guided by starshine or lightning. Love never lasts and phantoms never die—pedal steel wafts and ripples like an apparition; dusty pianos echo from attic alcoves. Songs fade away after they’ve scarcely begun. A man dreams he sold his soul and then forgot his own name. Smearing between an AM dial’s mono and stereo, even Case’s voice often seems snatched from bygone radio waves—and so it is, drinking deep from the Patsy Cline phrasebook while adding custardy dollops of Brenda Lee.
That voice: tall and mighty as Washington State’s Grand Coulee Dam (name-checked on the evocatively named “Ghost Wiring”), a rushing brook laying down the silt of years, hydroelectrifying every note with torrid steam and blinked-back tears. “Water through my lashes looked just like Christmas lights,” Case sings on “Stinging Velvet”—everything is illuminated on the densely arranged Blacklisted, where the multi-instrumentalist and gifted co-producer maps out cosmically darker terrain than her previous efforts without ridding herself altogether of The Virginian‘s honky-tonk hiccups or Furnace Room Lullaby‘s wry, love-socked swagger.
Born in Virginia (just like Cline), raised in and around Tacoma, Washington (the adored subject of Lullaby‘s “Thrice All American”), and lately of Chicago, Case started out as a garage-punk drummer and now moonlights as the star supertramp with Vancouver prog-pop dynamos New Pornographers (who are about to begin work on their follow-up to 2000’s Mass Romantic). In other words, Case isn’t necessarily to the country manner born. But while, say, her Bloodshot labelmate Sally Timms’s cowgirl balladry radiates a kindly, maternal beatitude that borders on condescension, Blacklisted is soaked to the bone in rueful wit, luxurious miserablism, and morbid cold sweat—c&w virtues too often reduced to self-pity by lesser latter-day sweethearts of the rodeo.
After the hard-used heartbreak of Furnace Room Lullaby, the only straight-up torch songs on display are covers. Case wraps her Puget Sound-sized pipes around the smoky middle-finger salute “Runnin’ Out of Fools” (a past favorite of Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin, and Elvis Costello) and recasts “Look For Me (I’ll Be Around)” as part sleepy come-on, part heavy-lidded threat. Popping quarters into the Twin Peaks jukebox, Case enshrouds the song’s passive-aggressive seduction strategy in quaking upright bass, gooseflesh vibes, skittishly fondled drums, and snarling steel.
Throughout Blacklisted, Case accesses the Tennessee Valley in blooming season via the Pacific Northwest of David Lynch and Kurt Cobain—pitiless rain and sense-warping fog nourishes the record’s electric-storm flashes of dread, washing away any taint of irony or fetish. Case is as likely to nod at Brill Building scion Stephin Merritt or the Handsome Family’s lunar-smitten Sad Milkman (on the chilled and stricken “I Wish I Was the Moon”) as her guardian angel Patsy (fearlessly rewriting “Walkin’ After Midnight” as the sadly defiant “Tightly”). She faithfully checks off her influences, but her sin’s her own; it belongs to her, from her lyrics’ tactile immediacy—the handprint on a smashed car that “looks a lot like engine oil and tastes like being poor and small/and Popsicles in summer”—to the bracing, sparkling current unleashed every time she opens her throat.
Case’s quintessential performance remains her cloud-splitting siren call on the New Pornographers’ “Letter From an Occupant,” a song this writer played an estimated 874 times in the span of a week last September after Dr. Greil Marcus prescribed it in these pages. Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising is only the most hyped and comprehensive sample of the ongoing wave of music addressing 9-11, but essentially, music addressing 9-11 had already been written—that is to say, retroactively assigned as such in the weeks and months that followed, and wholly innocent of bathos and presumptuous superfluity. We have nothing to say and we say it anyway, but we don’t have to put it to music and make it rhyme. Sleater-Kinney’s “Far Away,” for starters, begins with a friend calling Corin Tucker early one beautiful morning to say, “Turn on the TV,” as Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s air-raid guitars and Janet Weiss’s primal drumming strain to evoke the obscene horror on the screen—and whatever for?
Well-intentioned and genuinely unnerving as it is, though, “Far Away” only briefly derails the expertly crafted sixth LP by Neko’s fellow punk-diaper babes and Northwest loyalists. On One Beat, Portland’s Sleater-Kinney shake off the defensive tics that occasionally dampened The Hot Rock and All Hands on the Bad One—it ain’t easy being the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band. Here they wear the mantle like an airy gingham dress in summer as they skip closer toward Spectorized girl-group soul and fiddle with newfangled toys. A horn section butters the crunchy riffing of the benefit-party dance riot “Step Aside.” A boy’s voice joins the heretofore all-girls club when Hedwig and the Angry Inch composer Stephen Trask sings backup on the hilarious corrupted-by-rawk fable “Prisstina.” (In lieu of beaux, the model student in question “fooled around with her Bunsen plate.”) Tucker and Brownstein experiment here and there with hyper-affected ululations: Corin traffics in Yoko-worthy yawps, hoots, and gasps, while Carrie discharges maniacally bratty taunts that veer across octaves at jagged random, notably on the ay-there’s-the-Shrub political screed “Combat Rock.”
Admittedly, the injection of novelties (especially Brownstein’s laryngeal self-abuse) sometimes feels like the pinches and pokes of a veteran troupe pushing itself to stay interested. But Sleater-Kinney have never exhausted their inborn, ineffable knack for rabidly contagious hooks, trampolined into the stratosphere by Weiss’s seismic sticks. One Beat is ruthless with SuperGlue riffs that reach back a decade or more, from the Go-Gos pogo of “Oh!” to the stuttering Cure guitars of “The Remainder” to the Buzzcocks toolings of “Hollywood Ending.” The lyrics are another story—on the last song, suffice to say, they point out that in Tinseltown, “Truth’s as rare as the winter snow.” But since no other band so exuberantly celebrates solidarity, the women can soapbox vaguely all they want about how to “knife through the heart of our exploitation” (on “Step Aside”) so long as it’s on the heels of Corin’s ecstatic “JANET CARRIE CAN YOU FEEL IT!”
Sleater-Kinney have stuck to their indie guns despite overtures from bigger outfits, and if they’ve ever wavered, they’ve had only to glance toward the trials and tribulations of Aimee Mann, who learned plenty about solidarity—and solitude—during her decade-long season in corporate-label hell. Foundering on the reef of one intact but indifferent major when she wasn’t clinging to shards of another’s shipwreck, Mann finally swam for independent shores, buoyed by her Academy Award nomination for the Magnolia soundtrack, putting out 2000’s Bachelor No. 2 on her own SuperEgo imprint. Even now she hasn’t entirely extricated herself from the Big Six tentacles—she’s currently suing Universal Music Group for slapping together an “Ultimate Collection” of songs they never saw fit to release until a billion-some Oscargoers watched Mann’s stunned-fawn rendition of “Save Me.”
The wide publicity of her plight and the unanimous critical hosannas showered upon Bachelor No. 2 have left Mann with an awkward designation: mass-media outsider. She’s made a cottage industry out of double entendres that matchmake romantic letdowns with a&r embitterment, minting a fresh batch for her fourth solo LP, Lost in Space. “I won’t go near the marketplace with what I’m selling lately,” she intones on “This Is How It Goes,” calmly harshing on her boyfriend-label rep about “one more failure to connect.” If previously the trope was becoming a crutch, now it seems a mildly disingenuous pose.
Nestled in purring chamberlains, lulling midtempos, and guitars sated by Breakfast in America, Lost in Space finds Mann in a rut, albeit one with clear sightlines on relationship stasis, occupational drift, and the balm of (unspecified) addictions. Head-nodding chord progressions shuffle along inertly while vaguely wistful lyrics furrow their brows, given far more lump-in-throat resonance than they might deserve from Mann’s crushed-velvet-and-charcoal pipes. Verisimilitude isn’t the problem: For what it’s worth, congenital ambivalence sounds exactly like this. Now and again, a sparkler of effulgent melancholia will pop and scatter: the violin vapor trails of the title track’s heavenward chorus, the thrillingly protracted carpe-diem bridge of “Today’s the Day,” in which Mann’s minutely modulated vocals tremble with delicious anticipation (for what?) and crack ever so slightly with regret (over what?).
As on Blacklisted, many of Mann’s characters are captured mid-flight: nervous before their airplane takes off, about to jump in a car and drive anywhere but here, or, on the title track, existentially unmoored to the point of bewildered, hovering detachment. Lost in Space is itself perhaps a record of transition—Aimee Mann is a professional exile, and she’s proved quite capable at the job. All she has to figure out now is where it is she’s banished from.