Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Purple State of John
Thoughts of a wordslinger…
Somewhere in the midst of making the documentary Purple State Of Mind, I stumbled across the most sublime recording of the old folk gospel standard “Wayfaring Strangers” I’d ever heard. I always liked the song, but I’d never really heard it before. That’s how I felt.
The singer was Neko Case, and her version of “Wayfaring Strangers” appeared on the live record The Tigers Have Spoken, a generally luminous walk through her inspirations and influences, everything from the gospel tune to Loretta Lynn’s “Rated X” and Buffy Saint Marie’s “A Soulful Shade Of Blue”. When we got into the editing room on the documentary, her recording of “Wayfaring Strangers” seemed more than just a perfect fit with our endeavor to put one conversation between two old friends onscreen. It seemed an embodiment of the hope–and terror—of the movie.
From a very early stage, we decided to open and close Purple State with the song. Through dozens of different cuts of the movie, that choice remained a constant, and at one point, trying to find a better title for the whole project, we changed the name of the documentary to Wayfaring Strangers. That’s how invested we’d become.
The thing is this. We didn’t just find our aesthetic compass in the lyrics and tune of an old spiritual. It was Neko’s version, in particular, that proved indispensable. At one point, daunted by the amount of money it would cost to license the music for the film, we arranged for some Boise musicians to do an original recording, but the arrangement didn’t work.
Craig and I both despaired when we imagined the effect of that change on the course of the rest of the film. I’ll be quasi-religious here. We’d tried to replace something authentically sacred with a cheap substitute, and everyone knows what happens when you do that. No one believes.
In the end, Neko’s people were cool enough to cut us a break, and we secured the licensing rights. Time after time, as I watch the movie, I’m grateful again for the power in Neko’s recording. Seldom have I grasped the ability of the individual artist to imbue seemingly inert objects like words and notes with new life. She breathes a wild divinity into that already immortal song.
But I’m not just talking about joyous inspiration here. I’m also speaking of holy terror. Neko’s greatest sound effect is the note of holy terror she injects into every verse. “I love your long shadows and your gunpowder eyes,” she sings on “Prison Girls”, one of the standout songs on her new record. Every time I hear that lyric, I envision shadows ten miles long and eyes like ashen suns.
That’s the voice at work. It magnifies whatever it touches.
That’s the revelation of Middle Cyclone, which seems likely to do for her career what Alejandro Escovedo’s most recent outing did for his; namely, change the game. Anyone who wanted to see Case in a smaller venue may have to wait a few years. The critics have been raving, and their adulation is even more well-founded here than it was in regard to Escovedo.
On songs like “I’m An Animal”, “Prison Girls”, “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” and “People Got A Lotta Nerve”, she turns the sonic charge of her voice fully onto her own compositions. In “Wayfaring Strangers”, we hear with some shock her ability to go from one power surge to another, surprising the listener with a cavernous sense of aural space, as if we’re walking through the song with a flashlight and suddenly candles burst into flame; we’re in a cathedral. On Middle Cyclone, every second inhabits that kindled space. Listen and believe.
It’s hard to pick a favorite here, but if you ever loved pop music, try out “People Got A Lotta Nerve” and see if she hasn’t delivered the goods. Case isn’t a gospel singer, though I may have given that impression. She started in punk and moved through country on her early records, but she’s morphed into her own creation now, an omnivore who can absorb the vibes of Nashville, Memphis, Los Angeles and Toronto and return them with change. She sings about sex, death, nature, men and women with an overwhelming spark, but her voice strikes me as uniquely suited to a particular kind of spiritual experience, one brimming with darkness, silence and violence. She’s a spaghetti western disguised as a nun.
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