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Sometimes You Just Gotta Go There
Niko Case Exorcises, Staer Unleashes
The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
Ten years ago, singer Neko Case made a wise move by declining an offer by Playboy magazine to pose au naturel, obviously not wanting her impressive musical career to be overshadowed by her chest. This does raise a question to consider: what will be Neko Case’s legacy?
For the last half-century, most music artists generally aren’t allowed (in the nebulous, unspoken sense) to simply concentrate on one thing. While blessed with an incredible voice, Case has often fiercely expressed her own personal artistic vision, primarily writing her own poetic material for her proper studio efforts, and she’s no slouch as an art designer, also, garnering a Grammy nomination with Kathleen Judge for the packaging of Middle Cyclone. It’s like Case doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as just a singer, or more specifically, a country singer.
Case’s latest album has a dark urgency, often pointed as if directed at a particular individual; it’s distinguished from earlier albums with a fire, crudeness and occasional vulgarity, as if Case had violently exorcized her thoughts and threw them onto paper.
The scattered gender themes are obvious, like on the rock highlight “Man” or “I’m From Nowhere” which cites her “candied fist,” but there’s a broader theme at work, about the frighteningly liberating state of being independent.
The songs’ intentions are mostly apparent, except for a few trademark Neko Case cryptic moments, like the line “Sang my weight in metric trash, trip the light in Saturn’s embrace” in “Local Girl,” and Case seems to let her words express the power rather than her voice, which is somewhat of a shame—the arrangements don’t show off how dazzling her voice can be.
However, several moments are shiver-inducing, including a stark cover of Nico’s “Afraid” and the devastating “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” about a mother publically berating her child. The album continues Case’s trajectory away from country music and away from being considered merely a “singer” rather than “singer/songwriter,” and although not as ultimately satisfying as certain previous efforts, it makes this writer glad to understand that this is exactly the type of album that Case needed to make.
The unclassifiable power trio from Norway, Staer, is a refreshingly potent, twisty and confrontational blast of winding complexity, not avowing allegiance to any particular single camp yet seemingly drawing from heavy prog-rock, noise-rock, thrash, metal, ambient metal and avant-jazz on its latest six-song album, Daughters.
Bassist Markus Hagen and drummer Thore Warland swiftly gallop like samurai warriors on horseback through a shadowy murk with guitarist Kristoffer Riis providing heavily-treated guitar parts that paint a background landscape brimming with peculiar details, with uneasiness, disquieting, unplaceable sounds and menacing squeals.
“Daughters I” sets the mind and body reeling with its intricate structures and echoing blows until the last minute, when hell is unleashed in an aural torrent. On numbers such as “Daughters II,” Hagen serves up crunchy, thick and fuzzy bass lines, going deep yet nimbly gliding, somewhat reminiscent of Bill Laswell yet more restless, and that track has an unusual vibe, being entracing without being outwardly funky or too stern.
The eight-minute-long “One Million Love Units” uses awkward silences to great effect, pierced by a repeated stream of quick drum-roll bursts and crashes, and it manages to sustain interest for its duration by gradually going deeper into a spiral descent into madness.
“Neukölln” offers a compelling, persistent lurch and Warland’s tense, non-obvious drum patterns, and the album closes with a track featuring guest saxophonist Kjetil Möster, whose demented bleatings and beatings fit right in with the group’s m.o.
Daughters is a fascinating, haunted, caffeinated yet controlled death march, with potential crossover appeal for the metal crowd or those who bow at the John Zorn altar (particularly, his extreme-rock, thrash-jazz side), unsettling in its atmosphere and impressive in its execution.