Solos & sides
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It's no exaggeration to say that each new Neko Case album is cause for celebration. Known for her work as resident diva with The New Pornographers, Case teamed up with legendary out singer-songwriter k.d. lang and Laura Veirs for the exceptional 2016 "case/lang/veirs" album. If you haven't heard "Atomic Numbers" and Veirs' tribute to Judee Sill "Song for Judee," you don't know what you're missing. The fact is that Case also has one of the most acclaimed solo careers of any contemporary female singer-songwriter. Her latest album, the smoldering "Hell-On" (Anti), reunites her with lang and Veirs, as well as with a mind-blowing assortment of others, including regulars Kelly Hogan and Nora O'Connor. Case is also joined on the record by out artists Beth Ditto and Barbara Gruska, as well as Björn Yttiling and Peter Morén (of Peter, Björn and John fame), Robert Forster (of The Go-Betweens), Steve Berlin (of Los Lobos), Mark Lanegan (of Queens of the Stone Age), Matt Chamberlain and Kathryn Calder. But what about the songs? From start to finish, the dozen tunes, including "Bad Luck," "Last Lion of Albion," "Gumball Blue," the Eric Bachmann duet "Sleep All Summer" and "My Uncle's Navy" are nothing less than amazing.
Laura Veirs is solo once again on her new album "The Lookout" (Raven Marching Band), produced by her husband Tucker Martine. Veirs is not completely alone. Martine plays throughout, Sufjan Stevens joins her on the song "Watch Fire," and My Morning Jacket's Jim James can be heard with Veirs on the cover of the Grateful Dead's "Mountains of the Moon." But this is definitely a solo record, and she wrote 11 of the 12 songs. You also have to admire a songwriter who finds inspiration for a song ("Margaret Sands") in a T.S. Eliot poem ("Death by Water").
With one of the most distinguished careers in contemporary music, Richard Thompson, who was a member of British folk group Fairport Convention and performed as a duo with his ex-wife Linda Thompson, is also well-known as a solo artist for almost 50 years. Thompson's renowned guitar work is on display throughout his new album "13 Rivers" (New West), from the blistering "Her Love Was Meant For Me" and "Bones of Gilead" to emotionally powerful tunes "Shaking the Gates" and "My Rock, My Rope."
Neil Finn has a long history of making music with family members. He teamed up with brother Tim in the New Zealand band Split Enz, on his band Crowded House's Woodface album, then again as The Finn Brothers. On "Lightsleeper" (PIAS-Lester-Inertia), Finn is paired with his son Liam Finn for a set of synthy songs, some of which feature Mick Fleetwood (!) on drums. The experimental nature of the songs, including "Where's My Room," "Any Other Way," "Listen," "Back to Life" (featuring a bouzouki) and "Ghosts," may take a couple of spins to find their audience, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Something new is revealed with each repeated listen.