by: Neko Case

Neko Case is an artist incapable of sounding like anyone other than Neko Case. She's certainly not adverse to collaborating with artists she respects; she's been a long-time participant in the New Pornographers, and has contributed her estimable vocal talents to albums by Calexico, John Doe, Kelly Hogan, and Giant Sand, among others. But on 2016's case/lang/veirs, an album she recorded in tandem with k.d. lang and Laura Veirs, Case found herself working as an equal with two creative peers for the first time, and while her work on the album was strong, it was an example of the whole not being all you'd expect from the sum of the parts. It's impossible to say if the experience informed Case as she recorded 2018's Hell-On (and since lang and Veirs both make guest appearances, their relationship is apparently cordial), but the album finds Case firmly taking the reins and seemingly relishing the experience. Case produced Hell-On (Bjorn Yttling co-produced five tracks) and co-wrote all 12 tunes (except for Eric Bachman's "Sleep All Summer"), and the rich, deeply atmospheric sound of this music has her personality written all over it. Case has a voice that's warm and engaging but speaks from a position of strength, and her instrument dominates Hell-On, expressive and emotional but never histrionic. The arrangements are beautifully detailed, with layers of guitars and keys giving the melodies full-bodied support without sounding cluttered or intruding on Case's spotlight. Even when Case shares lead vocals with Mark Lanegan on "Curse of the I-5 Corridor" and Bachman on "Sleep All Summer," she meshes beautifully but cedes nothing, and Hell-On is a superb example of an artist who can shine bright while giving others room to do their best work. And if Case's lyrics are often enigmatic, they also feel revealing and personal, from the bittersweet nostalgia of "Curse of the I-5 Corridor" and the troubled memories of "My Uncle's Navy" to the playful cynicism of "Bad Luck" and the celebration of strong and empathetic women in "Winnie" and the title cut. With Hell-On, Case has once again given herself an ideal showcase for her talents as a vocalist, songwriter, and producer; it's lush but intimate, and one of the strongest and most satisfying records she's delivered to date. Which, given her catalog, says a great deal. ~ Mark Deming

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