AC Newman – Get Guilty (Matador, 2009)
Neko Case – Middle Cyclone (Anti, 2009)
This week two solo albums arrive from members of the infectious, zany power-pop supergroup New Pornographers. Whilst Neko Case has, over several albums now, established her own signature style, informed by backwoods country, Byrdsian twang and classic pop, AC Newman’s solo career has struggled to exist as a proposition distinct from his parent band. Newman writes the majority of the songs for New Pornographers, and their best albums arguably succeed because Dan Bejar’s excursions into weird, fantastical stream-of-consciousness provide some balance to Newman’s relentless pop sensibility. A whole album of Newman confections might well be difficult to digest.
‘Get Guilty’ is a big improvement on ‘The Slow Wonder’. That album had been frontloaded with excellent songs only to veer off into more obtuse, meandering territory. Whilst not quite as consistent as the best of the New Pornographers albums, ‘Get Guilty’ maintains a more engaging standard throughout. It succeeds partly through being more ramshackle and less overblown than the last New Pornographers outing, the disappointing ‘Challengers’. There’s a big emphasis on rhythmic clatter and percussive drive, most effectively on ‘Like A Hitman, Like A Dancer’. Whilst the arrangements are frequently lush, there’s a roughness around the edges that lends the music some endearing imperfections. In addition to this, there are unusual choices of instruments, including recorders and melodicas. It feels loose and fun, rather than over-composed.
The pomp-pop of ‘Challengers’ is refined into a more agreeable proposition on two tracks - the Spector-ish opener ‘There Are Maybe Ten Or Twelve’ and ‘The Changeling’, which seems to recast Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ as a drunken lurch. Both are bold, chiming, confident performances. On a second play, I wonder whether a better comparison might even be the lavish, irresistible early pop singles of the Bee Gees, minus the squeaky falsettos of course.
Elswhere, as might be expected, Newman’s predilection for relentlessly summery melodies presides. The first four tracks represent Newman at his strongest – combining this tendency with a slightly ragged musical delivery and an abundance of rhythmic quirks and tricks. ‘Too Many Prophets’ and ‘The Heartbreak Rides’ are among his most direct songs, where his tendency for lyrical verbosity and awkwardness doesn’t intrude too much on the overall performance. It would be easy to view Newman’s chirpy enthusiasm as irritating – but there’s also something undeniably delightful about their impact. Even the more translucent songs that constitute the final third of the record have a steely conviction and confidence.
Neko Case’s songs on ‘Middle Cyclone’ are less openly enthusiastic and insistent than Newman’s but, I suspect, ultimately more enduring. Here, she has refined and polished her sound without losing her idiosyncratic qualities as a songwriter. The BBC website describes ‘Middle Cyclone’ as a set of simple country songs but I can’t help feeling that underestes its achievement and misunderstands Case’s strategy. 2002’s ‘Blacklisted’ was something of a pivotal point in her career, the point at which she abandoned ‘Her Boyfriends’, took songwriting control and started to develop a stranger, reverb-laden sound evocative of fairytales and sinister menace. It was the perfect context for her unusual, sometimes creepy metaphors. Whilst ‘Middle Cyclone’ certainly presents a smoother, more approachable version of this sound, Case still inhabits her own unique space and in some ways it represents an expansion of her language.
‘People Got A Lotta Nerve’, the taster freely distributed around the internet, is in some ways quite misleading. Its twelve string guitar jangle and hummable chorus suggest an immediacy and directness not always in evidence elsewhere. Some of these songs are more complex creations. Indeed, sometimes when the surface appearance of a song is disarmingly simple, closer listening reveals that there’s much more than first meets the ear.
This is particularly true of the delightful title track. Its delicate strum and hushed, restrained vocal make it sound remarkably straightforward. The music box counter melody almost (but not quite) sends it into the realm of tweeness. Close listening, however, reveals an odd structure veering between bars of 5 and 6 in an unpredictable pattern. It’s a love song of sorts, or at least about the difficulty in accepting the need for love. The lyrics are both clever and achingly bittersweet. It’s a quiet gem and one of a handful of songs here to deal more directly with the feeling of falling in love.
There’s still a characteristic helping of magical realism though and Case’s preoccupation with the animal kingdom continues apace, now further enhanced by broader nature metaphors, as the title suggests. On the opening ‘This Tornado Loves You’, Case casts herself as a force of nature, wanting to ‘carve your name across three counties’. It’s one of many striking images liberally scattered throughout this album – another favourite is the key line from ‘Prison Girls’ – ‘I love your long shadows and your gunpowder eyes’.
For every crisp and immediate song here (the driving rock of ‘I’m an Animal’ is probably the closest thing here to something New Pornographers might produce), there is something distinctly odd. ‘Fever’ is full of weird and wonderful sounds, from the clicking sound of drum rims to discomforting guitar effects. Some of these tracks were recorded in Case’s rural barn, in which she utilised eight upright pianos.
‘Polar Nettles’ and ‘Vengeance is Sleeping’ both benefit from that underlying sense of barbarous threat that makes even her softest, most skeletal songs sound unusual. The longer ‘Prison Girls’ and ‘The Pharoahs’ essentially restate Case’s talent for narrative driven songs set to lilting shuffles. Neither perhaps breaks new ground for her (the former sounds like a slower version of ‘Deep Red Bells’) but both serve to emphasise her core talents with effortless ease.
The two judiciously selected cover versions also remind us how superb an interpreter Neko Case is. Her version of Sparks’ ‘Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth’, surgically removing any sense of playful irony or parody associated with the original band, is so good as to make me wonder whether all albums should be compelled to include a Sparks cover. Nilsson’s anguished, but also blackly humorous ‘Don’t Forget Me’ seems like a more obvious choice, but that shouldn’t take anything away from her thoughtful and composed delivery.
‘Middle Cyclone’ is a resplendent album that rewards more and more with every play. From the unashamed brutality of a line like ‘the next time you say forever, I will punch you in the face’ to the confessional tenderness of its title track, it contains a wealth of personal emotional directness not heard on its immediate predecessors. Yet it sacrifices little in its quest for broader appeal – this is still a strange, murky, half-fantastical world. My only reservation is the bonus track – a whopping 31 minutes of ambient sound from the pond at the aforementioned barn that is almost as long as the rest of the album. Sorry, but that’s just an unnecessarily large and wasteful file that almost undercuts the haunting beauty of everything that has gone before.