Two totally unrelated things: Neko Case is an animal, De La Soul are guilty bystanders.
Neko Case is an animal. Perhaps that’s a bit obvious, but to describe her any further muddles things, and to leave it at that is more revealing than you’d think. Case is a writer, but has not published any books, stories, articles, poems, or, as far as I know, a single word outside of her lyrics sheets. She is a singer as well, singing country music which sounds nothing like country music. But describing her voice beyond saying that she’s singing, not speaking or coughing, gets tough in itself. Mostly, she does not belt out the lines of her songs. She is not coy in her delivery; not angry nor thrilled, but also not disaffected. It is easier to leave it as Neko Case as an animal, because that allows and in fact encourages the same mystery of Great Blue Whale or Arctic Terns.
There is something you will not grasp about Case’s songs. It’s something you’ll grasp at as lyrics slip out of your cupped hands, and music stretches out farther than your eye can see. Neko Case is an animal and she tells you as much on her song “I’m An Animal,” from her extraordinary new album Middle Cyclone. But that’s one of the few discernible facts you’ll get from the song. The only concrete image of the brief song is one of Heaven as a place with that sickening smell of a midnight airport, sweat and scuff covered with antiseptic powerscrubbing. The image is just one of a brief list of things Case is sure of, the other things on the list being “I love you this hour. this hour today,” and “I’m an animal. You’re an animal too.”
The song ends too soon; Miss Case could’ve made it six minutes long and it wouldn’t have gotten sour, boring, or redundant, but I think that’s part of the package. Listening to Neko Case is like having a conversation with someone on top of a mountain, where every third sentence gets lost to the wind. You could either get frustrated about what’s being lost, or you can appreciate every single word you catch.
Neko Case plays the Beacon Theater tomorrow night with John and Joey from Calexico. If you’re not working a job that pays as poorly as mine, you have no excuse not to be there.
One of the things that kinda fell outta hip hop pretty early on was the narrative. With the exception of torchbearers like Jay-Z, Kanye West (who seems exempt from most hip hop rules), or out-there groups like Subtle, it seems like no one in hip hop wants to tell us a story. Back in the day (Read: when I was five and still listening to Beatles 45s in nap time in kindergarten), Rap music was a storyteller’s paradise. And perhaps one of the most unsettling and successful examples of a story told comes from De La Soul’s furious, reactionary, brilliant second album, De La Soul Is Dead. The album was a pendulum swing back from the upbeat, witty, positive hip hop of the band’s debut 3 Feet High and Rising, and its centerpiece is a song called “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa.”
The plot is fairly simple: an abused daughter takes revenge on her molester-father, but it’s the way Posdnous and Dave position themselves in the story that given the song its tragedy. The Two MCs clearly take sides in the story: According to them, Dillon is a social worker who volunteers as Santa Clause at Macy’s, and Millie, his daughter, is a teenager, reactionary and a little bit crazy. Pos and Dave work with Dillon, and he taken them to his house to watch sports and shoot the shit. He’s a good guy, popular, funny, and caring. He’s got an hot daughter who starts to say that her father is touching her.
In small ways that the guilt of the storytellers manifests itself throughout the song. There are breaks in the chronology that hint at the Pos and Dave’s desire to change the way they acted, to revise the history as they recount it. In the songs second verse, Pos raps “Yo Dillon man, Millie’s been out of school for a week, man, what’s the deal?/I guess he was givin’ Millie’s bruises time to heal/Of course he told us she was sick and we believed him.” The lines show regret of the the blind eye they turned towards Milly. Looking back, of course they should’ve done something. This song happened because they didn’t.
Pos’s last verse, where Millie’s revenge is enacted and the title of the song comes into play reveals more of those feelings of remorse on the part of Pos and Dave. Pos is waiting at Macy’s and Millie walks in. The way he describes it, that she “floats in like a zombie,” hints at an understanding of the trauma that she’s coping with, and the way Pos recounts Dillon’s last words, that “he didn’t mean to/do all the things that her mind could do nothing but cling to.” further the impact of what has occured. Even though the story is (probably) fictional, there’s some serious projection going on here. Noone would be that articulate or that emotionally acute with a gun to their head. The lines are just as much about Pos and Dave wishing they had done something as they are about Dillion wishing he hadn’t.
The surreal situation we’re given, someone trying to kill a department store santa, is cut open by the seriousness of these lines. It’s an terribly sad, terribly good song.
Funny story: In freshman year of college I made a mix of Christmas music for a few close friends and put the De La Soul song on there. A few weeks later I saw one of the friends I had given a copy to at a party, and he came up to me and said, “That was the most fucking depressing Christmas mix I’ve ever heard. Makes sense though: you’re Jewish.”