Newsweek Article on Neko Case

Interesting article on the "indie" music scene, focusing on Neko Case, from a major publication perspective (note the mentions of / comparison to Kelly Clarkson). A good read.

All the Pretty Verses, Indie Style

Alternative bands once avoided melody. No longer.

Seth Colter Walls


From the magazine issue dated Mar 16, 2009

You may think this month's most powerful new album from a singer-songwriter belongs to Kelly Clarkson. Not quite. Though the talented "American Idol" alumna has just given us "All I Ever Wanted," her new songs fall short of the mark set by "Middle Cyclone," from Neko Case. "Cyclone" is a platform for Case's voice, an instantly recognizable instrument that could win "Idol" in a walk, if its owner wouldn't detest the very idea. Though her music does crack with an addictive, sugar-buzz quality that matches the highs derived from bubblegum, it is decidedly not pop. Case is an indie artist—the kind who writes songs titled "I'm an Animal" or uses a tornado as a narrator. And yet her style is instantly appealing, blending Patsy Cline's rich country tone with the gale-force intensity of the original blues shouters, plus a jazz chord or three. If that sounds suspiciously ornate for indie music—well, you haven't been listening to the new notes from the underground.

While the idea of indie rock used to suggest radio-unfriendly noise or hopped-up aggression, a wave of unapologetic loveliness has swept through hipster nation. Acts such as Bon Iver, Iron & Wine and Antony and the Johnsons have been bringing pretty back, to paraphrase Justin Timberlake. Not all of indieland is preoccupied with elegance, of course. You can still seek out bands like Tyvek for joyous blasts of tuneless skronk, if that's your thing. But whereas Kurt Cobain once felt the need to hide affection for R.E.M. from his underground peers lest he be booted from their secret society, today's alternative acts no longer look at melody as the love that dare not speak its name.

What's changed since then has to do with the age-old dance between the mainstream and the underground. Back in the America of Bush the First, smiley-faced pop prodded punks like Nirvana and Green Day to embrace raw guitar feedback and bratty defiance. But pop music, that resilient thief, absorbed their innovations and turned outsiders into industry standard-bearers. By the middle of Bush 43's tenure, Green Day was selling 14 million copies of "American Idiot," and so the underground's contrary, hit-'em-where-they-ain't philosophy was pointing toward a less bombastic direction—a path filled with vulnerable melody and pretty voices. The fact that, by the 2000s, the vogue in pop production had largely retreated behind ringtone-bleep fetishism only fueled indie's desire to stake a claim on graceful writing and singing.

Though the construction of Case's own songs can be deliberately odd, there's no doubting the central grace and flexibility of her voice. Just as capable as Bon Iver or Antony when it comes to singing with subtlety, she also knows how to belt in a radio-ready fashion. That volume, when it appears, never strains her range, which seems elastic enough to fit any conceit—a rare-enough talent in all eras, let alone one that finds "Idol" preaching against vocal restraint. During the song "People Got a Lotta Nerve," in which a female tiger confesses to being a "man-eater" as though she were a supermodel prowling the meatpacking district, Case deftly plays off her own image as every straight indie boy's heartthrob. It's a good joke, and a better chorus—one that, if there's any justice in the world, will inspire as many singalongs among girlfriends at bars as Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" did a couple of summers back. After decades during which the underground studiously paid attention to the mainstream—if only to subvert it—perhaps it's time for the establishment to start taking notes. If they listen up right now, uninspired hit makers won't hear anything that needs rebelling against. What they will hear, simply, is the thriving pulse of American song.

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