I know that art isn’t a competitive sport, but I can’t help but categorize, compare, and rank albums and artists. It must be the biologist in me—taxonomy is in my blood. So there’s my excuse for pitting against each other the four somewhat prominent solo female singer/songwriter albums that have been released in 2006 and seeing who wins:
Beth Orton, Comfort of Strangers
Cat Power (Chan Marshall), The Greatest
Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins, Rabbit Fur Coat
Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
#1 Neko Case—Impeccable. By far the strongest and most verstaile vocal performance of the bunch. Her singing grabs you and doesn’t let go. You can’t help but listen and go where it takes you. One quibble I have is with the pervasive use of a strong reverb effect, which adds a layer of separation between singer and listener. I prefer to hear a good, powerful voice unfiltered.
#2 Chan Marshall—Soft. Sad. Evocative. Also able to carry some light R&B tunes surprisingly well. Sometimes her voice sounds so burdened that I wish she would just open her mouth and sing bright and clear. Oddly, it’s the same feeling I get listening to John Mayer.
#3 Beth Orton—Her voice is not pretty in the least. It is compelling and distinctive, though. My biggest complaint with her vocal performance on this album is that it isn’t very dynamic. She’s in the same range and at the same volume/intensity level for most of the album. It’s easy to let your attention drift.
#4 Jenny Lewis—A very pretty, dainty voice, but she sometimes lays on the affectations a bit thick. She has a tendency toward cloying preciousness that she indulges too often (see the title track).
If I have a strong suit in music analysis, it’s not lyrics. I do notice some things I like from Neko Case and some things I don’t like from Jenny Lewis (frequent phrasing problems (“bullSHIT canVAS”), didacticism, and weird posturing vis-a-vis religion). I haven’t formed an opinion on the other two.
#1 Neko Case
#2 (tie) Beth Orton
#2 (tie) Chan Marshall
#4 Jenny Lewis
#1 Neko Case—Unique, non-traditional structures win points with me any day.
#2 Beth Orton—Some very good, no-nonsense, interesting pop songs.
#3 Jenny Lewis—No complaints, really.
#4 Chan Marshall—Some good ones, some long, flat, static, boring ones.
#1 Neko Case—A good, reverb-heavy match for the reverb-heavy vocals. Not content to just competently accompany, the band does a lot to make the songs work as well as they do. The slightly off-kilter, complex piano melody that weaves through “Margaret and Pauline” is one of several nice touches that make this album feel more like a band album than a singer/songwriter album. It’s to Case’s credit that she’s willing to share the stage with the music.
#2 Chan Marshall—Nothing too interesting happens here. Strings occasionally provide rich textures (sometimes too rich) and horns and the rhythm section bring some energy and movement to a few tunes.
#3 Beth Orton—Minimalist for the most part. Some good stuff, but nothing that really catches the ear.
#4 Jenny Lewis—Most of the time it’s standard country/folk instrumentation. But when she gets clever, like when a distorted, feedback-heavy electric guitar shows up, back in the mix, of the cutesy chorus of “Happy,” you just have to scratch your head. I’m just not feelin’ it, dawg.
#1 (by far) Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
#2 (tie) Cat Power, The Greatest
#2 (tie) Beth Orton, Comfort of Strangers
#4 Jenny Lewis, Rabbit Fur Coat
Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine from last year might have given Fox Confessor a run for its money, but so far in 2006 Neko Case stands without rival.