[SINGER-SONGWRITER] A songwriter’s songwriter, Casey Neill has an unpretentious intelligence and depth of focus bleeding through his subtly lyrical tunecraft, which has long attracted the attentions of an array of admirers. Even while Neill was gigging coffeehouses and hawking demos as post-collegiate Olympia troubadour, his version of a Pete Seeger classic found its way on to a tribute album also featuring Billy Bragg and Bruce Springsteen. And, on one shared train trip through upstate New York, he performed a railway-station busking session on Seeger’s insistence.
The semiannual appearances over the past five years of Pogues cover band KMRIA—led by Neill and a who’s who of instrumentally gifted/globally name-checked Northwest musicians, most of whom make appearances on Neill’s forthcoming release, Goodbye to the Rank and File—have been embraced by original Pogue James Fearnley.
Neill’s voice—narrative voice as well as the manful, knowingly rustic, Boss-in-pocket timbre—draws the oddest of acolytes. “Somewhere in the ’90s,” Neill recalls, “I was on a bill with Jello Biafra for an activist thing, and he said, ‘Yeah, I have this great love for folk music.’ Which was pretty funny, but he would talk about how much of it was like punk rock. And then he asked me to tour with him.”
It was a fitting pairing: Despite Neill’s sizable presence within the acoustic community, there’s always been a punkish edge to his music—one of the songs originally recorded for his newest album, he says, wound up sounding too much like the Dead Kennedys for inclusion. But with production by local songwriter Ezra Holbrook (a longtime member of Neill’s band, the Norway Rats), Goodbye to the Rank and File effectively smoothes out the more eclectic flourishes of Neill’s muse that sometimes baffled radio programmers—its propulsive roots planted besides hothouse numbers transplanted from Celtic or Appalachian climes.
Neill’s last album, 2007’s Brooklyn Bridge, drew upon an extended stay in New York City following the urgings of his soon-retiring father and his longtime collaborator/Scottish folk legend Johnny Cunningham. “At one point, Johnny called me up and said, ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ No. ‘Do you have a cat?’ No. ‘So, get your ass to New York and lets play some music!’”
Rank and File is as intrinsically Portland as Brooklyn Bridge was New York. Blending together the distinct tints of Neill’s extended palate towards a richer and wholly unique vision, the disc is a collection of masterful portraits, remembrances of Northwestern people and places converging and fracturing.
As a recording, Rank and File signals an arrival at a destination point, bringing together the full Norway Rats lineup: Little Sue (vocals, acoustic guitar), Chet Lyster (guitar), Ezra Holbrook (drums), Hanz Araki (vocals, flute), Jesse Emerson (bass) and Jenny Conlee (piano, accordion). “We have a lot of shared history,” Neill says. “Everyone has been in the trenches and in the Northwest music scene, some people are in huge bands and some people are slogging in bars and we’re all kind of together just doing it. Some of that is just built into the songs.”
SEE IT: Casey Neill and the Norway Rats release Goodbye to the Rank and File on Saturday, May 1, at Doug Fir Lounge. 9 pm. $10. 21+.