By Al Melchior May 16, 2022
Portland-based musician and songwriter Casey Neill hasn’t been afraid to change his sound from album to album. When he came out the brooklyn bridge in 2007, he eschewed the Celtic and folk-influenced sound that formed the basis of his work dating back to the mid-90s for a fuller indie rock feel. Eleven years later, Neill and his band have again made substantial changes to their sound. On his three previous albums (the last two with The Norway Rats), Neill’s sound is dominated by electric guitar, bass and drums. About 2018 undergroundhe and The Norway Rats took another twist, adding synths and drum machines to the mix.
While the sound of underground may not be familiar to those familiar with Neill’s previous albums, many of the contributors are household names. Eels’ Jeff “The Chet” Lyster co-wrote each of the tracks, and in a 2019 interview, Neill cited him as having been instrumental in the album’s new direction. Neill has been a key, if less recognized, member of Portland’s indie scene for decades, and several prominent Portland-based musicians lend their talents to underground. Peter Buck (REM) and Scott McCaughey (The Minus 5) both star on “In the Swim”, the latter also co-writing the song with Neill and Lyster. No less than three current or former members of the Decemberists (Jenny Conlee-Drizos, Jesse Emerson and Ezra Holbrook) are part of the Norway Rats lineup for this album.
While Neill assembled a remarkable group of musicians, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of underground is the change in his voice. The roughness that characterized his earlier work is gone, and his vocals on this album are somehow both softer and more powerful. On songs like “Savages,” “Everybody Wants to Be Found” and “Darken Down,” the spacious arrangements bring Neill’s vocals to the fore, giving them a brutality and vulnerability that effectively conveys messages about leaving and being left that repeats itself through several of Subterrene’s ten tracks.
The album opener “My Beloved Complice” signals that this album is going to be a departure from Neill’s previous releases; spacious, layered keyboards crescendo gently to the first of many guitar chords and cymbal crashes to come. The accompanying lyrics are equally captivating: “Hello Drunken Winner/Spray Rust-Oleum down the block.” It’s an irresistible invitation to follow Neill’s story of his relationship with his accomplice, a “desperate cause queen” who can “mix the waking world with the dream”.
Neill has been writing and recording beautiful, soulful songs for a long time, but the instrumentation and production changes on underground enhance the listening experience. People unfamiliar with Neill’s music will find quality albums among his early work, but underground is an ideal entry point for an exploration of one of Portland’s most overlooked musicians.
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