Casey Neill’s bio makes for an interesting read. Starting with his agit-punk outfit Riffraff in the mid 90s, he’s carved out an international reputation as a songwriter and musician, one whose abilities have seen him gaining kudos across the folk, rock and roots scenes with name checks coming in from such luminaries as Jello Biafra and Steve Earle. After living and recording in New York for a number of years Casey returned to his own roots in Portland, where he formed the Norway Rats along with some of his older Oregon colleagues, and Rank & File is the first album from Neill’s current musical incarnation.
So you get the idea; this album is perhaps the culmination of around fifteen years of recording and touring, with the singer songwriter who began his career emulating the Clash and Dead Kennedys now setting his own standards, and the Norway Rats provide a celtic country rock backing and some very fine rockabilly guitar moments to Neill’s introspective, sometimes autobiographical tales of misery and redemption, cracked ceilings and brilliant mornings, despair and love, tales from the other side of the tracks given quite real depth and emotive power. We haven’t all quite been there but when we do arrive at the destinations described by the twelve songs on Rank And File we’ll know where we are, thanks to Neill’s eye for detail combined with his unflinching humanity.
One band whom the Norway Rats instantly put me in mind of are/were The Pogues, and one of Casey Neill’s side projects has in fact been a Pogues tribute band, but where those north London barflys are best known for drunken surrealism á la James Joyce, Casey Neill’s own writing is determinedly, even coldly sober with imagery that retains its focus regardless of how or where he’s spent his evening, and if there’s a pervasive sense of a lost past that provides a common thread to the songs here, such as “When The World Was Young” and its reminiscence of a country boyhood or a tale of a broken relationship such as “She Floated Away” there’s also a near feral energy to the playing that lifts without entirely contradicting the subject matter of Neill’s lyricism. I won’t take up too much of this review quoting what are some highly quotable verses, but the probable album highlight “Guttered” is little short of an actual masterpiece, as bleak a scenario as Nick Cave or Shane Macgowan ever presented us with: “smoking lucky strikes in a snow covered graveyard / you watch your breath spill into the air” is perhaps one of the most inspired and evocative song intros I’ve heard for a year or two, and make no mistake, Casey Neill is a first rate lyricist and as eloquent a representative of rural America as Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen or any one of a number of Nashville names.
If I’d wanted to hear an album that encapsulated the barroom romanticism, neon lit glamour of a downtown Saturday night anywhere, an imaginatively vivid evocation of life lived not quite on the margins but lived to the full nonetheless, an album that had the grit of the very best Alt. Country and the unsentimental eye of a social document, and that might even inspire some actual jigging in its more upbeat moments, then I couldn’t have asked to hear a more completely realised work than Rank And File. Some of Casey Neill’s late 90s music brought him near the Grammy awards and this, beyond question, is the album that could establish him as a very real songwriting great.