Sept. 27--Neko Case's new album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, is one of those works that benefited from the personal torment of its creator.
Worse, which brought Case and her five-member ensemble, including assistant front woman Kelly Hogan, to the Electric Factory on Wednesday, is not a breakup album. It's a collection of original songs -- plus a cover, of Velvet Underground singer Nico's "Afraid" -- spurred by the death of Case's parents and grandmother.
That's relevant to Case's art in that it prompted her to write purely autobiographical songs for the first time. And that's a good thing. The Virginia-born singer is abundantly talented, with a powerhouse siren's call for a voice and an unconventional style, wholly her own, that pulls from country, rock, and torch singing.
But while the 43-year-old songwriter has made great artistic progress over the last decade, her asymmetrical songs are often filled with coded allusions that make them difficult to decipher and unpack.
Not so with emotionally direct tunes such as her opener at the Factory on Wednesday, "Where Did I Leave That Fire," from Worse. It confronts depression head-on. "I wanted so badly not to be me," Case sang, her lioness' mane of red hair flung back as Hogan's harmonies shadowed her voice. "Where did I leave that fire?"
Case is a natural collaborator, and on stage she shines plenty of light on her coworkers. Multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse was the all-star player in the band, bringing to life the subtleties in Case's songs, as in the contemplative "Calling Cards" and galloping "Set Out Running" on pedal steel guitar, banjo, and trombone.
With Hogan, Case sang beautifully and exchanged entertainingly absurdist repartee. On Wednesday, their minds leaped from Edgar Allan Poe's house around the corner on Spring Garden Street, to the preponderance of avian motifs in Case's songs, to the image of human bird-feeders wearing suits made of croutons.
Early on, the show hit a high-volume bump in the road when, in the middle of "The Pharaohs," audience and performers on stage were confronted by a sudden explosion of sound, like a feedback bomb going off in everyone's ears. It was unintentional, and extremely loud, for a few seconds.
Case asked whether everyone was OK, and she was only half joking when she said, "That was dangerous!" It sounded that way, but when the band went back and started the song over again, it didn't detonate a second time, and the rest of the show went off without a hitch.
A.C. Newman opened the show, fronting a six-piece band that built an acoustic wall of sound, a quieted-down version of the power-pop attack he's best known for with New Pornographers, of which Case is a member.
With two mainstays of the Philadelphia music scene in his band -- singer-percussionist Adrien Reju and former Roots bass player Owen Biddle -- Newman excelled with a gently freewheeling approach that worked clarinet and violin into standouts like "Elemental" and the title cut to his 2012 album Shut Down the Streets. The Woodstock, N.Y.-based Canadian also showed an evolving fetish for British folk-rock with covers of Gerry Rafferty's "Mattie's Rag" and Lindisfarne's "Meet Me on the Corner." With his entire band, he joined Case onstage for her rousing closing encore of The Worse Things' "Ragtime."
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