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Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

Neko Case

(Anti-)

Indie siren sings past her limitations.

Neko Case is not a natural-born songwriter, but for over four solo albums she has managed to turn her limitations into defining strengths. Her melodies can be underdeveloped and repetitive, her lyrics elliptical and slightly off in their details. Usually she sounds best singing others' material, whether the alt-country of her earlier albums or the power-pop of the New Pornographers. On her fourth full-length, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Case's songs tend to blur together, especially on their verse melodies, which creates a lull over the album's lagging second half. Fortunately, she has a crack backing band to flesh them out. Together they create a murky twilight mood that imbues the album with a sense of mysterious purpose.

But in their strangeness, Case's songs hold considerable sway. This time, singing her own words, her voice sounds much more confident as it blends country, gospel, Detroit girl groups, and rock into an individual style. On Fox Confessor, she puts it to good use on the gospel stomp of "John Saw That Number," the narcotic guardedness of "Hold On, Hold On," and the adolescent tempest of "That Teenage Feeling." Lyrically, her turns of phrase can be off-putting but evocative. On the opener "Margaret vs. Pauline," she plumbs the class differences between two lifelong rivals. On "Star Witness," she sings in the voice of a girl who has seen the crash that kills her first love. Meaning gets tangled on Fox Confessor, making Case's songs stranger and more absorbing, as if demanding that the listener decode them. -- Stephen Deusner

Grade: B+

Neko Case plays the Hi-Tone Café Saturday, April 15th. Doors open at 9 p.m.; admission is $18. The High Dials open.

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The Last Romance

Arab Strap

(Transdreamer Records)

An urbane bitterness is about the only thing that sets The Last Romance apart from previous Arab Strap albums -- that, and there's not so much drum machine this time around. An album of romantically catastrophic mini soap operas may sound trite after 10 years of pretty little boys in bands giving their take on "emotion," but these are men. Men who drink heavily and occasionally drop the C-bomb. (You're probably not an Arab Strap fan if profane gender-specific slang is troublesome.) The Last Romance does what the Arab Strap discography would seem to make impossible: It presents an angrier Arab Strap. The first two tracks, "Stink" (a reference to what the morning smells like after a night of screwing and drinking) and "(If There's) No Hope For Us," are fast, caustic tales about good-hearted adults behaving badly, and even the folkier moments thereafter have sharp teeth. ("Stink," "Dream Sequence," and "[If There's] No Hope For Us.") -- Andrew Earles

Grade: B+

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Bitter Honey

Eef Barzelay

(spinART)

One of contemporary pop's most dazzling songwriters, Clem Snide frontman Eef Barzelay goes solo acoustic here and produces as convincing a showcase of his talents as anything since his band's comparatively orchestral 2001 career album The Ghost of Fashion. As always, Barzelay performs an audacious high-wire walk between irony and sincerity, humor and pathos. The lead/title track is a plaintive ballad sung from the perspective of a hip-hop "video ho" that takes an opening laugh line ("That was my ass you saw bouncin' next to Ludacris/It was only on screen for a second but it's kinda hard to miss") on a journey to unexpected places both bitter and righteous. One song directed at a lover begins, "Sometimes I wish you would die just to see how it would feel," and only gets more daring. And Barzelay retains his unparalleled gift for the evocative one-liner with the promise "I would gladly sip my champagne from your shoe." ("The Ballad of Bitter Honey," "I Wasn't Really Drunk," "Words Escape Me") -- Chris Herrington

Grade: A-

Eef Barzelay and his band Clem Snide play the Hi-Tone Café Friday, April 14th. Doors open at 9 p.m.; admission is $10. Local singer-songwriter Brad Postlethwaite opens.

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