Shonna Tucker and Eye Candy
1215 U Street NW
Washington, DC, 20009
Doors 7:00 PM
Neko Case has always been brave, but with her latest album she proves herself fearless. With her forthcoming Anti- release, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, the singer known as much for her restless musical curiosity as her clarion voice charts a powerfully personal course across the rocky landscape of childhood, love, and loss.
Case's 2009 album, "Middle Cyclone," was her most ambitious to date, vaulting her to new heights of critical and commercial success and netting two Grammy nominations. But if "Middle Cyclone"–laced with frogs, tornados, and killer whales–was Case's exploration of the potency of the natural world, the new album sees Case turning inward. The Worse Things Get... plunges into the wilderness of human experience, revealing Case at her most emotionally raw and yet, paradoxically, in steely control.
Executive produced by Case, The Worse Things Get... was recorded by Tucker Martine in Portland, Oregon, as well as with Chris Schultz and Craig Schumacher in Tucson and with Phil Palazzolo in Brooklyn.
Martine, Case, and Darryl Neudorf mixed the album, on which Case is supported by a battalion of musicians including guitarist Paul Rigby, bassist Tom V. Ray, longtime backing vocalist Kelly Hogan, multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse, Kurt Dahle, and John Convertino. Other guests include M. Ward, Carl Newman, Steve Turner, Howe Gelb, and members of My Morning Jacket, Los Lobos, and Visqueen.
This far-flung set of collaborators mirrors Case's own peripatetic path to creative maturity. Born in Virginia in 1970 and raised, for the most part, in working-class Tacoma, Washington, she's lived and worked in Seattle, Vancouver BC, Chicago, and Tucson, before moving five years ago to a 100-acre farm in rural Vermont.
Now 42, Case is reluctant to talk about her family. "I am related to some stellar, beloved people," she says, "but very few." What she will say is that her parents were young and unprepared and divorced when she was five years old. She bounced around between mother and father until she left home for good at age 15. Marked by alcoholism, drug addiction, and neglect, her childhood was traumatic. "I should have been an abortion," she said once, her characteristic bravado masking a harder truth.
From art school in Vancouver to early years making music in Seattle and beyond, Case has been on a lifelong quest for self-definition. During the making of this The Worse Things Get... she granted herself a long-held desire, committing fully to the life she's created: tattoos on her forearms reading "Scorned as Timber" and "Beloved of the Sky," from an Emily Carr painting. "I wanted them for 20 years!" she crows. "No bank job for me!"
With her new roots finally taking hold in Vermont–the place she says she plans to die–she says she's now grounded enough to grab the past by the throat and let it take her for a ride. "I wanted to be in control, as much as I could be anyway," she says. "My 40s are a lonelier place than I imagined, but I can look myself in the face and know that it was my choice. So anything that happens to me from here on out is mine. I'm at square one again."
The Worse Things Get..., her sixth studio album, emerges from a three-year period the artist describes as full of "grief and mourning," in the wake of the deaths of not just both her parents, but several intimates as well.
"I fought hard against the feeling of grief all my life," she says, "but about three years ago I finally had to give in and mourn the dead. I had to look inward more than I wanted. It was sobering, and I often felt like I was blurring the lines of mental illness.
"When I stopped fighting it," she adds, "it took me where I needed to go."
The Worse Things Get... traces an emotional arc that reveals Case in all her thorny contradictions, each track in the 40-minute song cycle its own short story. "I like to have a linear flow," she says of the album's structure. "I wanted to have faith in the songs as a group rather than stacking the deck with all the upbeat songs at the top."
From the prickly power-pop aggression of "Man" to the dreamlike "Where Did I Leave That Fire?" and the hopeful uplift of the album's closing track, "Ragtime," she displays uncommon dynamic range and lyrical clarity, taking a leap of faith that listeners will hold on for the full journey.
"I just want people to feel like I was straight with them, and messy, because I just let go and trusted them completely."
Early songs on the album show Case at her most lyrically playful, slip-sliding along the edges of gender, family, and identity. The first track, "Wild Creatures," throws her themes into bold relief: "When you catch light, you look like your mother," her voice soars, before asking, "Would you rather be the king's pet? Or the king?"
"I grew up in the United States in the 70s," says Case, with feeling. "The new mantra on children's television then was 'you can be whatever you want.' I take that to heart so hard it's my religion; it's my personal American flag and Constitution. It makes petty societal obstacles crumble and I want every person in the world to feel it."
Or, as she proudly proclaims on the single, "Man": "I'm a man's man, I've always been. But make no mistake what I've invested in. A woman's heart is the watermark by which I measure everything."
"Is a lioness not a lion?" she says rhetorically, when asked to decode the lyrics. "We are all 'men' – 'man' or 'woman' doesn't cut it for me unless I'm at the gynecologist."
Case's rich, associative lyrics can at times be so elliptical as to be misunderstood by casual listeners. Not so with the a cappella "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu," which marks the tonal shift of the album at midpoint with chilling clarity.
Spare and direct, the lyrics repeat verbatim the words of a mother's verbal attack on her daughter, which Case overheard one night in, yes, Honolulu. "Get the fuck away from me," she sings in affectless, bell-like tones. "Why don't you ever shut up?"
"I died inside for that kid," says Case-who framed the rest of the song as a message to the child to stay strong and to honor the truth of her experience. "But she just kept singing her own little song. She was my hero."
The direct address of "Honolulu" is mirrored three tracks later with Case's take on the Nico song, "Afraid," the sole cover on the 12-song album.
That song's incantatory quality carries the album through to the otherworldly "Where Did I Leave That Fire?" Underscored by the haunting pings of submarine sonar, what starts as a dreamscape of loss — "I wanted so badly not to be me," sings Case – concludes on a note of wry humor. "I do believe we have your fire lady. You can pick it up if you come down with ID."
But for all the pain and confusion that winds through the album, The Worse Things Get... ends on an unequivocal note of hope and power. At her darkest moments over the last few years, Case says, "I was uneasy and distractible. I couldn't listen to music except ragtime. It was so hopeful and busy, like something working like a little factory to fix me." Thus, "Ragtime," the album's final song.
"I'll reveal myself when I'm ready. I'll reveal myself invincible soon," sings Case, as she builds to its ecstatic conclusion, the richly layered chorus of vocals and horns climbing and climbing into one glorious shout from the mountaintop.
"I am one and the same, I am useful and strange," she soars, before closing with a line cribbed from Moby Dick, which she read for the first time while working on the album, and which proved a valuable yardstick: "There's a wisdom that's woe, and a woe that is madness."
It's Neko Case in a nut — and could well give listeners goosebumps.
Shonna Tucker and Eye Candy
Shonna Tucker grew up in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, listening to the same salty-sweet mix of soul and country that made up the Arthur Alexander and James Carr singles recorded there decades before. She played bass in the Shoals scene from her high-school years until starting an eight-year stint as bassist and singer for the Drive-By Truckers. During Tucker and bandmate John Neff’s time with the band, they released critically acclaimed albums like “Go Go Boots”, which rose to #35 on the Billboard charts and garnered significant praise. They both played on Betty Lavette’s “The Scene of the Crime” which was nominated for a Grammy, followed by “Potato Hole” with Booker T. Jones, which won a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental album at the 52nd awards show. The band made appearances on both David Letterman and Jimmy Fallon’s late night shows, and toured with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
The music she makes today in Athens, Georgia, flows from the same vein as the music she grew up with: songs that haunt and float like Dolly Parton’s “Down from Dover” and ones that pulse and move like Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle,” rockers that are right at home on the stage of the 40 Watt downtown and folk songs that are at home among the donkeys and hens on her farm outside town.
Shonna’s band, Eye Candy, includes four of the most prolific players in the Athens music scene: John Neff on guitar and pedal steel, Bo Bedingfield on guitar, Neil Golden on keyboards, and Clay Leverett on drums. For nearly twenty years, John has been one of the town’s most sought-after collaborators in the studio and on the road. Bo is singer/songwriter and leader of the Wydelles, and has backed up several other local songwriters on drums and guitar. Clay led the Athens rock band Lona for eight years before starting honky-tonk band the Chasers, and has played drums and toured with Bright Eyes and Now It’s Overhead. Neil, former member of the Glands and Elf Power, also writes and sings for Golden Brown.
Shonna Tucker and Eye Candy’s debut album, “A Tell All”, was recorded by Kyle Spence (Harvey Milk). It features ten songs about love and jealously, nights spent on the road and nights spent in the kitchen, the things men do to women and women do for men. “All these songs came fast, in a few months time,” explains Tucker, ‘There was no theme or plan at all. Inspiration came from what was happening around me and that was a lot of different things. The first single, ‘Since Jimmy Came’ is about a very young and single mom who thought she had found true love until she had her son. The realization of priorities. Nature at it's finest."
The record will be released October 15th on Sweet Nectar Records/Red Eye, and the band will hit the road to bring this killer collection of songs to life.