Sending Up Flares, the fourth record from Casey Neill & The Norway Rats, is the sound of a
band rallying together, turning the genre-bending range of its influences into the group’s most
cohesive, cathartic album yet. Created amidst chaos and uncertainty, these songs offer a lifeline
to a world in need of balance, shot through with stories about resolve, resilience, wonder, and
positive human interaction.
Those themes come together in the album’s cinematic title track, where Neill sings about a stranded motorist whose car breaks down in the middle of the night, seemingly far away from civilization. “The flares are shot off in hopes someone will come to help,” explains the frontman, who co-wrote the album’s songs with guitarist/producer Chet Lyster. “Upon climbing a hill to get some perspective, the lights of a massive metropolis unfold with countless flares being launched by other people who also need relief. It’s the same realization of the castaway in ‘Message in a Bottle’ — I’m not alone in being alone. It can work as a metaphor for mental health, addiction, alienation, or simply trying to be seen.”
With Sending Up Flares, Casey Neill & The Norway Rats don’t just make themselves seen; they make themselves heard, too. Each of the band’s previous albums explored the evolving range of Neill’s musical interests, from the dreamy Americana songs that filled 2010’s Goodbye to the Rank and File to the electronic textures that peppered 2018’s Subterrene (whose critically- acclaimed songs received praise from Rolling Stone and No Depression). Here, the Portland- based supergroup finds room for everything, turning a wealth of musical influences — including folk, punk, art-rock, atmospheric soundscapes, guitar freak-outs, and string arrangements — into something singular. “I love exploring all of the music I love,” says Neill, who even nods to artistic role models like David Bowie, author Ursula K. Le Guin, and filmmaker Wim Wenders in the song “Meteor Shower.” “Sending Up Flares feels like we’ve reached a point where the band has settled into a natural, nuanced place”, he adds. “This is who we are. It’s what we do.”
The Norway Rats are a band of Pacific Northwest heavy hitters with a longtime roster that includes accordionist/keyboardist Jenny Conlee of The Decemberists, bassist Jesse Emerson of Amelia, and Neill (who, in addition to releasing solo material, often moonlights as a member of The Minus 5). Sending Up Flares also features guest appearances from a number of indie icons. Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker contributes vocal harmonies to the jittery “Jumping Out Of My Skin,” while Slang’s Anita Lee Elliott adds some George Harrison-influenced slide guitar riffs to the song’s arrangement. Scott McCaughey and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck — both of whom perform alongside Neill in The Minus 5 — appear on “The Stars Unseen,” which features McCaughey’s free-time percussion and Buck’s ghostly E-bow guitar lines. On an album filled with musical all- stars, though, it’s Casey Neill & The Norway Rats who shine the brightest. They’ve established their own musical mix — a melting pot of synthesized textures, organic instruments, and sharp songwriting — and they’ve never sounded so resolute.
A prolific songwriter and road warrior since the late 1990s, Neill tours throughout the USA, Japan, and Europe performing at venues such as Town Hall in New York, Bumbershoot, and the Newport Folk Festival. American roots and Scots/Irish-folk influences have often underscored his songwriting and solo material. Sending Up Flares also hints at a European influence, with songs that channel everything from the cinematic sweep of golden-era U2 to the dark, complex alt-rock of PJ Harvey. A four-piece string section (Bizarre Star, arranged by Kyleen King) adds a symphonic punch to “How Beautiful Am I?,” the album’s tribute to Marianne Faithfull. Synths, stacked vocal harmonies, and burbling electronics run throughout “Fall Into Forever,” bringing to life the song’s bizarre storyline involving a Tokyo typhoon, Dante’s Paradiso, and pop star Britney Spears. Together, these 11 songs shine new light on a band who, after more than a dozen years together, have arrived somewhere singular and startlingly unique. “
Our sound has evolved continuously since 2010,” Neill says. “Every time we make a record, we hope we’ve reached the place we’ve been trying to get to all along. Sending Up Flares feels like that. It’s the destination.”