Neko Case – Canadian Amp EP Review

“I’ll listen to anything but rap and country.”
– me in Grade 9

“I’ll listen to anything but country.”
– me in Grade 12

“Johnny Cash is okay, but all other country still sucks.”
- me in second-year university

“Okay, Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris are good. That’s IT though.”
– me last year

“Country music is the only music that makes sense to me anymore.”
- me last week after seeing Emmylou Harris and hearing Neko Case’s Canadian Amp EP

One thing that I truly love about the rock writer Lester Bangs is that he was the first to admit when he’d changed his mind about something. It was as though he got some sort of charge out of admitting his good-natured hypocrisy, often professing to love a band or an album after previously savaging it in countless reviews. And in keeping with this tradition of public self-sacrifice, that’s what I’m about to do here. I’m about to tell you how much I love Neko Case’s 8-song EP, Canadian Amp despite the fact that I have been heard testifying on hundreds of occasions how much I despise country music.

Case is a darling of the Vancouver scene, despite having been born in the Southern United States and having only spent four years in Vancouver. From 1994 to 1998, however, she completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design and played in several Vancouver bands including the Del Logs, The Propanes, The Weasles, and a personal favourite of mine, Cub. The result, as most Vancouverites already know, is that her new-millennium affiliation with locals The New Pornographers caused her already substantial fan base to explode. All of which leads us to the 2001 release of Canadian Amp.

For someone who only lived in Canada for four years, Neko Case has assembled one of the most amazing EP’s comprised with a great selection of obscure covers of Canadian artists. The opening track, “Andy”, is so wonderfully sparse in music and so clear in vocals that one can only assume that Neko Case must have the most acoustically perfect kitchen in the American northwest. (The liner notes claim the whole thing was recorded in her kitchen where, she writes, “you can do it in your underwear!”) The next question is how she fit two singers, a Hawaiian guitar, an electric and acoustic guitar, a banjo, a ukulele and an accordion in there for the following song “Dreaming Man” which was originally written and sung by Neil Young. Regardless, it’s a fuller sound and one that compliments “Andy” while lifting the mood somewhat.

“Knock Loud”, written by Sook Yin Lee – formerly of MuchMusic and then indie film fame – is by far the darkest song on the album with lyrics like “…said I was sorry, drink to forget, I wake up alone, knock loud I’m home…” It’s a song of surprising gravity despite being just vocals, raspy electric guitar, and strange background distortion. To be honest, I’m still unsure of whether I wish it had a drummer and more instruments because it would fill out the song a little better, or because it’s so forlorn that it’s almost uncomfortable to listen to. Don’t get me wrong, it is a great track, but one much more suitable for those dark nights of the soul.

“Make Your Bed”, a Neko Case / The Sadies original, is a perfect cleanser for the mind after “Knock Loud”. There’s a wonderful jangly banjo played by Jon Rauhouse and a lot of la-la-la-la-la lyrics. It’s straight out bluegrass and features another favourite artist of mine, Andrew Bird, on violin. It’s not an upbeat track by any means, but it’s lighter and if “Knock Loud” is the dusk, “Make Your Bed” is the dawn. Case’s vocals are reminiscent of Courtney Love at her most sedate, but with a heavy country twang that works perfectly.

“Poor Ellen Smith” is a song that belongs to the public domain, which means that it’s so damn old that either nobody remembers who wrote it, or else the person who wrote it doesn’t care who sings it, and now anyone can record it royalty free. Hooray! This song is a banjo explosion and features lyrics like “I’m free from the walls of this prison at last, but I’ll never be free from my sins of the past.” It’s the kind of country song that I would have rather eaten dirt than listened to in junior high.

“In California” is a song that is much more folk than country, but that’s the kind of country that I like the best. That’s why I still like Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris more than any of the other country artists. “In California” was written by another Canadian named Lisa Marr, who I regret to say that I had never heard of before I picked up this album and I still haven’t taken the time to really check out. I will though, because this song is amazing and it’s not just because Neko Case does such a beautiful job of covering it. It’s great songwriting and I can see why it was chosen for this EP.

“Alone and Forsaken” by Hank Williams is exactly what you would expect with a title like “Alone and Forsaken”, made all the more amusingly wretched with Case’s addition of rain and thunder sounds that really add to the old-country feel. If you like Emmylou Harris’ voice and Johnny Cash’s writing style, you’ll be all over this song.

“Favorite” isn’t spelled in the Canadian way but it is a Neko Case original and since CBC Radio 3 considers her an honorary Canadian, then this song is honorary Canadian too. Spelling be damned! The best thing about this final track is the clever contrast between the bright tinkling piano that floats over heavy lyrics like, “Last night I dreamt that I hit a deer with my car, the blood from his heart spilled out onto my dress and was warm.” Good stuff for sure.

The late-great Townes van Zandt is quoted as saying “There are only two kinds of songs; there’s the blues, and there’s zip-a-dee-doo-dah.” Well I assure you readers that there are absolutely no zip-a-dee-doo-dah songs on this EP. None whatsoever. It’s the blues from start to finish, but it’s Case’s ultra-clear vocals, do-it-yourself recording style, and her musical arrangements that make this album something truly special. This EP is a real tribute to the four years she spent here and her affection for this country is made clear in the liner notes where she writes, “Dedicated to all my friends in Canada. I love and miss you.” Lucky for everyone involved, then, that she comes to visit us as often as she does.

You can catch Neko Case (and The New Pornographers and Andrew Bird and others) at the upcoming Stanley Park Singing Exhibition in Vancouver on August 30th and 31st.