02 February 2009

Neko's Reverb World: Canadian Amp (2001)

It's not as though Neko Case is wanting for critical acclaim or the limited notoriety that is afforded non-mainstream artists. Her last studio release, 2006's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, brought her attention in spades. She has been a star in the "alt-country" firmament nearly as long as she's been recording, and a major one since the near-perfect Furnace Room Lullaby (2000). Her full-length followup Blacklisted (2002) was received with equal critical acclaim and indie adulation. And between those releases was this little interjection released in 2001, an EP recorded just after her move from Seattle to Chicago and featuring cover versions of four tunes by Canadian songwriters, a Hank Williams number and two Case originals. The record was initially sold at tour stops but was later released in more traditional fashion.

While it also met with a fair amount of plaudits, due to its nature it seems destined to remain a stepchild in comparison to her deservedly famous full-length efforts. Which is a shame, because its 23 minutes are packed to the gills with great songs and playing by a host of guest sidemen including Jon Rauhouse, Andy Hopkins, Andrew Bird and Robert Lloyd. With its echo, reverb and haunting harmonies, this could be a soundtrack for a David Lynch western-noir film.

Things start simply enough with "Andy", a tune by Mike O'Neill, which is a simple guitar and vocal number featuring Rauhouse on tenor guitar. The set picks up in earnest with Neil Young's Dreamin' Man which features more fleshed out instrumentation (accordion, Hawaiian guitar, banjo ukelele, electric guitar and Kelly Hogan's spot on backing vocals) and the unforgettable line "...with a loaded gun and sweet dreams of you." "Knock Loud" is another sparsely instrumented piece, with electric guitars by Andy Hopkins, almost a type of reprise of the first track. Case's original "Make Your Bed" doesn't get name-checked much as a favorite track in the reviews I've read, and I'd like to go on record as spotlighting this tune. It sounds like nothing so much as a traditional murder ballad that might be found on some musicologist's field recordings. Led by a reverbed banjo and fiddle, it's a case study in how to make original music that sounds traditional. Lisa Marr's "In California" follows the public domain banjo-twang of "Poor Ellen Smith". I imagine Case must have heard and/or played with Marr during her time in Vancouver, and her song is an inspired choice--a homesick love ballad and surely the first pop/country song to reference "Koreatown". The Hank Williams number "Alone and Forsaken" is strummed and sung over the sounds of rain and thunder but it's Case's voice that takes center stage with Hank's ghostly lyric. "Favorite" is another Case original, totally in spirit with the rest of the record and a fitting closer.

Canadian Amp is not a perfect record by any means. The heavy reverb is mostly a plus in my book but would probably distract some listeners, and the metallic twang of some of the instruments can be harsh at times. But in spite of its weaknesses, this small gem remains a favorite of mine. Case has such a genius for selecting and interpreting covers that it's hard to believe they're not originals. If you're currently Neko-less, I would recommend either Furnace Room or Blacklisted as introductions, but save a spot on your shelf for this.

  1. "Andy" – 1:40 - Mike O'Neill
  2. "Dreaming Man" – 3:46 - Neil Young
  3. "Knock Loud" – 3:08 - Sook-Yin Lee
  4. "Make Your Bed" – 3:15 - Case/The Sadies
  5. "Poor Ellen Smith" – 2:17 - traditional
  6. "In California" – 3:29 - Lisa Marr
  7. "Alone and Forsaken" – 2:42 - Hank Williams
  8. "Favorite" – 3:17 - Case

No comments: