Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review: Casey Neill and the Norway Rats - All You Pretty Vandals

Casey Neill (facing camera) and the Norway Rats 
It was hardly random that the subject of the first article I wrote for this blog was Casey Neill. What I admired most about this blog was its commitment to shine a light on high quality music, especially when it might be flying under the radar.  And no artist fits that bill more squarely for me than Portland's Casey Neill. His songs are perfectly structured, the lyrics terrific, with strong performances, backed by a tremendous rock and roll band.

Neill believes in the power of rock and roll and wears his heart on his sleeve, in keeping with his own blue collar work ethic. Neill stands proudly on the shoulders of his heroes Springsteen and Strummer. There is no band on the planet I'd rather see on a Friday night after a tough week in the office than Casey Neill and the Norway Rats. They've picked me up and dusted me off more times than I care to count.

All You Pretty Vandals was years in the making, the songs here taking shape in Neill's frequent club performances in Portland and throughout the West and occasionally beyond. Neill isn't in a position where some major label writes him a fat six figure check so he can take his time in the studio. No, bands like Casey Neill and the Norway Rats scrap and claw, get the music ready and then make the most of their limited studio time, in this case at Portland's highly regarded Type Foundry, with Chris Funk of the Decemberists (and Casey Neill's wonderful Pogues tribute band KMRIA) producing.

On the title track, Neill unleashes his anger at the Wall Street barons who sank this country while lining their pockets:

One of the standout tracks is "My Little Dark Rose" about the rough underside of Portland, the part you don't see on Portlandia or read about in the New York Times' frequent articles about the trendy foodie/creative class culture here:

This band is outstanding, a bit of a Portland all-star ensemble. All You Pretty Vandals has a grit and toughness from Neill's songs but also Chet Lyster's excellent guitar work. Lyster (a longtime touring member of the Eels, and more recently Lucinda Williams' band) knows how to use space and timing, when to dial it up and when to more subtly add just a little flourish at the right moment. Jenny Conlee's (from the Decemberists) accordian, organs and pianos are perfect. The rhythm section of bass player Jesse Emerson (Amelia) and drummer John Moen (Perhapst, Decemberists, Boston Spaceships, Elliott Smith) are in the pocket and also adding to the toughness and immediacy of the sound here.  Various others are called on to add just the right touches, including Langhorne Slim, Lisa Molinaro, Redray Frazier, Scott McCaughey, Chris Funk, and The Portland Horns.

I tend to gravitate first to Neill's rock songs. My favorites here are back to back in slots 3 and 4, "She Came Alive" and "In With A Shout". "She Came Alive" leaps out the speakers, picking up steam until it feels like a full on rumble, the words and music tumbling out at breakneck speed, controlled mayhem like a rugby scrum. If Husker Du reunited and made a great new single for 2013, it might sound like this.  Then, shifting gears, comes a brooding and hard slow burner, "In With A Shout", in sound a bit of a departure for Neill, especially its climatic conclusion with a great violin part by Annalisa Tornfelt (Black Prairie).

But like any Irish-American worth his salt, Neill has a sentimental side and the ballads are just as affecting. I particularly like two beautiful ones here, "The Dark Divide", prominently featuring backing vocals from Luzelina Mendoza from Y La Bamba, and the closing song "Arden Eden" (starts with the great line, "Her accent comes back when she drinks").

Every song here has a different feel and is fully realized. A couple of mid-tempo songs here, "Vanish Away" and "Signal Reach" would have held their own on Automatic for the People.

Elven songs, every one of them memorable, All You Pretty Vandals is one of the best CDs I've heard this year. Casey Neill is a smart songwriter and has surrounded himself with very talented musicians. But above all that, Casey Neill brings passion to every note he sings, every line he writes.

The record will be released on November 12 but is available now at their live shows. You need to see Casey Neill and the Norway Rats when they make a rare full band tour across the US starting right now:    

  Oct 17 Lee's Liquor Lounge Minneapolis, MN
  Oct 18 Vaudeville Mews Des Moines, IA
  Oct 19 Kiki's House of Righteous Music Madison, WI
  Oct 20 Rozz Tox Rock Island, IL
  Oct 22 Red Line Tap Chicago, IL
  Oct 23 Foam St Louis, MO
  Oct 24 Kirby's Wichita, KS
  Oct 25 Lucky's Everyday Wichita, KS
  Oct 28 The Crux Boise, ID Free RSVP
  Nov 02 Arcata Playhouse Arcata, CA
  Nov 07 Triple Door w/ Wesley Stace  Seattle, WA
  Nov 13 Old Saint Francis School Bend, OR
  Nov 15 Doug Fir Lounge Portland, OR
  Nov 16 sam bonds garage Eugene, OR
  Nov 20 The Saint Asbury Park, NJ
  Nov 21 Bowery Electric New York, NY
  Nov 23 Johnny Ds Boston, MA

Casey Neill artist web page  
Casey Neill and the Norway Rats Facebook page
Twitter page

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