It’s no secret to the world that gay men love their divas. From the tragic (Judy Garland) to the aspirational (Lady Gaga), we flock to incendiary performers with tragic flaws or (metaphorical) big balls. And occasionally we miss out on the finer songwriters among us. Case in point: the veteran Neko Case, releasing her seventh solo record today, and the young Natalie Prass, whose impressive sophomore album should generate a rabid fan base.
When she isn’t busy with The New Pornographers or case/lang/veirs, Neko Case will gift the world with a solo record. Having been lumped in with the alt-country bandwagon when her debut dropped in 1997, she’s long outstripped that restrictive genre clarification. She’s too weird a lyricist to be contained within Americana, and when you concentrate on her words, you realize she’s kind of a homegrown surrealist. The early use of acoustic guitars and some twang really threw a lot of people off.
Hell-On, the latest from Neko Case, was recorded prior to, during and immediately after her North Eastern property was destroyed in a fire. You’d think the songs would be more melancholy as a result, but, true to form, she confounds expectations.
She recorded her jauntiest song, “Bad Luck,” the day after the fire. Beth Ditto joins her on the waltz-time “Winnie.” And Mark Lanegan brings his trademark darkness to the quietly devastating “Curse of the I-5 Corridor.”
Hell-On was mostly self-produced, though she brought in Björn Yittling of Peter, Björn and John to punch up a few tracks. “I wanted some new sounds,” Case has said. “And I love what he does. He loves the hook, and he’s really good at elevating a chorus. And that is something I really wanted.”
With only one record to her name — 2015’s dreamy eponymous debut — Virginia’s Natalie Prass is also looking for some new sounds. She had been working on songs in a similar vein to the debut — ultra-feminine, sweet, romantic — when the U.S. election happened. She immediately switched track.
Produced, once again, by Matthew E. White, it doesn’t take more than three seconds to notice the change. Whereas her debut was infused with baroque arrangements and a placid, velvet-smooth vocal style reminiscent of the young Karen Carpenter, The Future and the Past leans quickly into a bottom-heavy yet buoyant indie-pop sound that traverses her ongoing travails with heartbreak (and not just of the romantic variety).
In discussing her empowerment track “Sisters” she says, “I think what hit me really hard with Hillary’s loss was just the deep, deep cultural stereotype women — all women — face. Women are against women, and men are against women. Like, women have to rise above so much to get ahead.”
Elsewhere, she tackles the breakup of a bad relationship in a series of tracks (including “Lost”) and the start of a new love (current single “Short Court Style”). And, as noted above, she announces her change in approach with the slinky funk-lite of “Oh My.” Prass is such a pristine vocalist — a trait she shares with Case — that the subtly insistent rhythms and upbeat sonics add just the right amount of stank to her controlled demeanor.
Case, the established artist, is here to stay, and she just gets stronger with each release. Prass is still dipping her toe in the waters and defining herself. Yet in both instances we have strong, determined, and talented women who deserve our attention, respect and maybe even our stamp of future Diva approval.