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Jenny Lewis with The Watson Twins / Neko Case | Rabbit Fur Coat / Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (Rough Trade / Anti/Mint)
With 2004's superb live album, 'The Tigers Have Spoken', Neko Case consolidated her status as the queen of modern-day Americana. With its soaring set of covers and old/new originals, the collection captured Case continuing to raise the bar of her star-quality. A rising arc that made her seem destined to hit gold on an ensuing studio set. However, now that the potential moment is finally upon on us, Case faces a somewhat unexpected obstacle to her enviable pre-eminence, in the shape of one Jenny Lewis. Similarly brought-up on classic country, soul and gospel but better known for her indie-pop pedigree c/o Rilo Kiley, Lewis's first foray into solo record-making is a striking sting in Case's tail.
Lewis's biggest threat to the Case throne comes with the ease of her delivery, her gift for melody and her less austere use of atmosphere. Case's 'Fox Professor...' is, in comparison, an even darker extension of her last studio album, 2002's 'Blacklisted', that requires repeated listening before its considerable charms are unearthed. Vocally, Lewis has a rich and effortless stride but it's inevitably no match for Case's towering earthy tones. Lewis is smart with her choice of CwaS-friendly producers though - employing Mike Mogis and M Ward to twiddle the knobs - but Case's re-deployment of Tucson's Wavelab studio shrouds her songs in a more distinctive, analogue-ambience. Lewis drafts in a raft of noteworthy guest contributors too - such as Death Cab's Ben Gibbard, Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and the gospel-trained Watson Twins - to give Case a run for her indie/alt.country credibility. Case however, still has the benefit of being able to borrow members of Giant Sand, Calexico and The Sadies, as well as the ever-reliable Kelly Hogan and The Band's Garth Hudson.
Songwriting-wise Case has an epic vision, steeped in American noir and bruised romanticism, which lends an air of delicious desolation to "The Needle Has Landed" and the rousing "Hold On, Hold On". Lewis is more contemporary in her songwriting bent, most notably on the provocative "Born Secular" and the semi-autographical title track. The two have a knack for interpretation too; with Lewis's all-star line-up somehow convincingly resurrecting The Traveling Wilburys' otherwise corny "Handle With Care" and Case covering the ecclesiastical obscurity "John Saw The Number", with jubilant gospel-charged energy.
Between the two albums, Lewis and Case give each other some tough competition. 'Rabbit Fur Coat' may arguably have some more enjoyable individual songs (the likes of "The Big Guns" and "Rise Up With Fists!!" are simply dreamy melodic-pop affairs), but 'Fox Confessor...' has a more commanding collective power. Ultimately, both are winners. Lewis has proved herself as an impressive solitary songwriter whilst still having a decent 'day-job' to fall back-on. Case is bloodied but unbowed; still more committed to the long-haul with a stronger more genuine ambition, whilst still having another band - The New Pornographers of course - to recharge her considerable talents with.