Neko Case: The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You – This monstrosity of a title belongs to Neko’s newest album, which is excellent as usual. Compared to previous albums of hers, it comes across as somewhat more produced and polished, as well as bringing in new instruments. I’m not sure any of her earlier recordings had used saxophone or brass, but this album has both. Beth told me she thought the sax part on “Bracing for Sunday” reminds her of They Might Be Giants. Kelly Hogan, Rachel Flotard, and Jon Rauhouse all return; and there’s also some guitar work by M. Ward. Neko’s vocal prowess is still very much in evidence, and her skill as a songwriter is showcased as well. One line that people seem to particularly like is “If I puked out some sonnets, would you call me a miracle?” from “Night Still Comes.” I find myself liking the rather absurdly literal ending to “Where Did I Leave That Fire,” saying that the singer can pick up her fire if she comes down with ID. If only it were that easy. Another song worthy of note is the a cappella “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” in which Neko relates the story of coming across a boy who’s told by his mother to “get the fuck away from me.” I don’t know if the story is true or not, but I know I’ve read that Neko was neglected by her parents. It’s a rather haunting number, as is “Afraid,” actually a cover of a song by Nico of the Velvet Underground. Yep, it’s Neko covering Nico. This one has background music, but it’s subtle. The closer is “Ragtime,” which ends with a brass section. After a pause, we hear a cat meow, followed by Neko saying, “That was awesome.” I’ve started saying that to my cat on occasion. The deluxe version of this album includes three bonus tracks. “Madonna of the Wasps” is a Robyn Hitchcock cover, and Neko retains Robyn’s British pronunciation of the titular line. It also includes a synthesizer solo. “Magpie to the Morning” is a song from Middle Cyclone, but with a different arrangement this time, heavy on the banjo. Finally, the intriguingly named “Yon Ferrets Return” is an upbeat track based on a rhythmic guitar riff.
Neko is now touring in support of the album, and Beth and I saw her last night at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia. It’s interesting to chart her rise in popularity, as we first saw her live over ten years ago at a little place on the waterfront called the Tin Angel. She eventually moved up to the Trocadero, and then the Electric Factory. I miss those more intimate early shows, but at the same time I’m glad more people are getting to know her music. Jon Rauhouse, who’s been playing live with her since the earliest concerts we saw, provided guitar, steel guitar, banjo, and even trombone. I had to take a picture of his setup, because it included a lamp with fringe that Beth said was kind of trampy.
The set mostly consisted of stuff from her last three albums, but “Set Out Running” from her second one was a nice surprise. I always enjoy Neko in concert, not just because of the music, but also due to her conversational sense of humor. She and Kelly Hogan frequently have brief discussions about just about anything, including some rather crude topics. At one point, Kelly Hogan mentioned that she sings “Baby I’m-a Want You” to sandwiches, and then Neko talked about singing to the toilet. The opener was A.C. Newman, the lead for the New Pornographers, who’s collaborated with Neko many times over the years. He and his band joined Neko on stage for “Ragtime,” doing backing vocals and playing tambourines.