Why Neko Case Should Teach Pop Stars How to Sing

March 16, 2009


Kelly Clarkson was the musical guest on SNL this past Saturday night. She’s not a terrible performer, and although I’m not a fan, I can tell she does have a bit of musical talent. Yet I couldn’t help thinking that SNL should have picked Neko Case to be their musical guest instead. Both Clarkson and Case have new albums to promote. Not to be overly mean to Clarkson, but the difference between these two is quite simple, and the reason  Neko’s  new “Middle Cyclone” is probably far artistically superior to Clarkson’s “All I Ever Wanted”  is because Neko sings very more authentically and creatively than Kelly.

I really think Neko Case is a good point of reference for any modern aspiring singer. She has one of the absolute best voices in modern music– indie or popular. Of course, that can’t be taught. She can hit any range it seems, soaring highs and rumbling lows and she twists through each phrase and stamps it in a unique and original way. What can be taught by Neko to folks like Clarkson, Katy Perry and other numerous pop stars, who sing with good enough voices but quite often make sub-par quality songs and albums, is her conviction. She sings it like she means it. She puts herself into her songs. You know that pesky thing, lyrics? Well, that’s more than a little important. Sure, the occasional mindless tune can be fun and often even classic, but if everything you sing lacks any sort of substance whatsoever, it doesn’t matter how well you sing it, it will be forgotten. Case is fearless at approaching any topic or tone, be it straightforward autobiographical narrative or metaphorical abstract art, God, sex, death she can cover it all.  Another lesson she exemplifies in song is that it’s not always about showing off your skills at the expense of the song. Remember Whitney Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”? She almost destroyed the song, her version may have been a hit but it’s of very lower quality than the original simply because she goes out of her way to over-sing it, hitting each note at full throttle. Most modern pop, country and R & B singers tend to follow in that tradition, thinking that by showing off that they can hit high notes and that they have traditionally “good voices” they may have a hit…and they may, but they aren’t making art. Neko Case knows how to be both subtle and excited. She knows how to approach each word on its own terms. She knows when not to overdo something. Take “That Teenage Feeling” in which she has a perfect chorus that she builds to carefully…she only sings that chorus once, so you have to keep re-listening to the song to hear it again. Speaking of conviction in her subject, listen to “Deep Red Bells”, where Case recalls her personal teenage fears of the serial killer who stalked the interstates at that time–her fear and emotion pour into one of the most essential noir songs ever. Case is like a meld of ‘40s era jazz and blues singers, ‘50s era country stars and ‘60s era rockers, with more intensity than any modern female singer of any genre. Where comparisons display the failures of her contemporaries the most are on the most country songs of Case. “Set  Out Running” is pure Patsy Cline/Loretta Lynn-tinged Country-Soul that makes any latest hit by folks like Carrie Underwood look like complete drivel. Even in the abstract Case appears more poignant than others when they are blunt– “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” is a faith and doubt tale that cuts to the bone. Socially conscious ? Check out “The Tigers Have Spoken” for the most heartbreaking animal rights song ever written. And if you say that her conviction is due only to her writing her own lyrics, check out some of her work with the power-pop alt-rock group The New Pornographers in which she sings other peoples songs, and sings them with feeling– “Letter From an Occupant” and “Mass Romantic,” for example.

I guess I just can’t help but think two things here. SNL, with it’s past history of showcasing great indie bands, ranging from Kings of Leon to Arcade Fire or even recently Ray Lamogntaine, well, Case should have out-ranked Kelly Clarkson, who will sell enough albums on her own. Two, someone like Neko Case deserves more widespread recognition. Her last album, 2006’s “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” only moved 200,000 copies despite being critically hailed and beloved. Her new this month album “Middle Cyclone” is expected to move more. Being that Clarkson’s new album will move a lot of copies at places like Wal-Mart and Case’s new album will move lots of copies at the remaining small indie shops, most copies that aren’t illegally downloaded will be bought digitally through places like i-tunes. So, if you’re reading this and want real, soulful, heartfelt and convincing music, please PAY FOR and download the new “Middle Cyclone” Neko Case album and consider how great it would be if she could teach these radio fillers to actually sing. Then go back and get her past 4 albums. Peace.


3 Responses to “Why Neko Case Should Teach Pop Stars How to Sing”

  1. petitek said

    I liked what you had to say. But I would disagree with the choice of Whitney Houston singing “I will always love you”. Personally I think Beyonce covering “At Last” would have been a better choice.

  2. Bill said

    What a great post. You’re absolutely right. I was in college during the mid70s, SNL’s first few years, and while the show did feature the familiar Paul Simons and George Harrisons, they also gave us great new bands, some of which made it, some didn’t. But the exposure was incredible. Just as importantly, they would dust off old geezers like . . . Desi Arnez, whose electric performance on drums blew the audience away. Blues, rock, soul: SNL was fearless. And Neko would have fit perfectly. She CAN sing, my favorite performer for a few years now. She’s my new Emmy Lou Harris.

  3. Chris said

    Just ran across this. Love Neko’s voice and what you have to say here. She’s always reminded me, not so much in timbre of voice but in spirit, of Jenny Lewis.

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