When the drummer of Vancouver punk band Maow stepped out from behind her drum kit and up to the mic, the world of percussion lost a little and the realm of country singing gained a lot. On her debut album, The Virginian, Neko Case proves herself to be a gifted singer, possessing a big, powerful voice perfectly suited for the traditional country music performed by her revolving cast of Boyfriends. The Virginian (so named because Case, who is widely assumed to be Canadian, is in fact a Virginia native) is fun, energetic but somewhat thin-sounding. Its charms include a cover of the Everly Brothers country-rock classic “Bowling Green,” but it could otherwise be considered analogous to kd lang’s Angel With a Lariat — a debut more memorable for introducing a powerhouse vocalist than its own merits.
Furnace Room Lullaby is a major step forward. Case employs her booming voice with more confidence, and the material, all of which she had a hand in writing, goes a long way towards establishing her increasingly complex persona. There isn’t anything approaching a weak track on the album, but standouts include two tributes to Tacoma, Washington—”Thrice All American” and “South Tacoma Way”—as well as the rollicking “Guided by Wire.” Then there’s “We’ve Never Met,” a torchy duet co-written and performed with Ron Sexsmith. While rockers have to suspect that no one could perform such traditional country without tongue at least partially in cheek, Case’s conviction always shines through. In another era, she would’ve been one of the great ladies of country music, sharing the Grand Ol’ Opry stage with Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn. Even now, if the music world made any sort of sense, Furnace Room Lullaby would be acknowledged as a major country album of the 1990s, and Case would be holding down her rightful spot as one of the leading artists of the genre.
But it will never be, as once her chance to perform at the Opry got her banned for life, when she removed her shirt onstage (to avoid passing out from heatstroke, she says). At least that puts her in the company of Johnny Cash, who earned the same distinction in another manner. The incident seems to have taught Case some sort of lesson, though — when an online poll conducted by Playboy netted the redhead the title of “Hottest Babe in Indie Rock” and an invitation to pose for the magazine, the admitted fan of vintage pin-up art opted to keep her clothes on.
The Opry incident also inspired the title of her next album, Blacklisted. As much of a progression from Furnace Room Lullaby as that album was over The Virginian, Blacklisted is a magnificent achievement. Case had spent some time on the road with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and the influence shows. The music here has a dark, dramatic sweep comparable to Cave, the Tindersticks or Roy Orbison, and Case’s vocals measure up to that heady company…and then some. “Deep Red Bells” is her masterpiece, a stunning piece of country drama that builds to a soaring chorus. Amazingly, Case’s lyrics have reached a level of sophistication on a par with her voice, as has the music, performed by a supporting cast including Howe Gelb, John Convertino, Joey Burns, Kelly Hogan and Mary Margaret O’Hara. Highlights include “Stinging Velvet” and the cautionary “Pretty Girls.”
Case’s vocals are even more astounding in a live setting, and The Tigers Have Spoken is proof. While it’s undeniably a bit of a water-tread between studio albums, Tigers does include a lot of new material. With assistance from the Sadies, Mark, Hogan and, on the traditional spiritual “Wayfaring Stranger,” the audience at the IdeaCity03 conference, Case roars through songs by Loretta Lynn, Buffy Sainte-Marie and several of her own originals. Wonderful stuff, and by far Case’s hardest rocking solo work. A hidden track of stage banter contains Case’s endorsement of a unique solution to the extinction of tigers.
If Tigers was a chance for Case to cut loose, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood returns her to the gothic Americana of Blacklisted. Aided by Gelb, Convertino, Burns and Hogan as well as the Band’s Garth Hudson and Rachel Flotard of Visqueen, Case takes her cues from her ancestral Ukrainian folklore and other traditional sources to craft a dark song cycle about loss, desire and the struggle for transcendence. She continues to grow as a songwriter, so much so that her extraordinary voice is almost a hindrance — it’s so transfixing that no none really notices what great songs the woman is now writing. But “That Teenage Feeling,” “Maybe Sparrow,” “Star Witness” and “Margaret vs. Pauline” are all stellar examples of songcraft, showing Case to be far more than just a great vocalist.
Live From Austin, TX is a more traditional live album than The Tigers Have Spoken, focusing as it does on her “greatest hits.” Recorded at her outstanding 2003 performance on Austin City Limits, the sound quality and performances are as excellent as one would expect from that source material. The concert was also released on DVD.
Case’s string of excellent studio albums shows no sign of letting up on Middle Cyclone. The album, more immediately accessible and upbeat than either Blacklisted or Fox Confessor, gets off to a roaring start with the urgent “This Tornado Loves You,” in which Case likens desire to a tornado wreaking havoc across the countryside. The disgruntled-nature theme carries through the entire album, as Case ponders emotions and the natural disasters they cause. The outstanding, insanely catchy “People Got a Lotta Nerve” would seem a candidate for Top 40 success except for lyrics which include arms and legs being ripped off by killer whales. Case is in a more placid but no less intense mood on songs like “Polar Nettles” and the title track, which is buoyed by a choir of music boxes. Covers of Sparks’ thematically appropriate “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” and a gorgeous reading of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” also stand out. The closing “Marais la Nuit” is a 30-plus minute recording of frogs in the creek behind Case’s Vermont farmhouse, and is, in its own way, as lovely as what it follows. Middle Cyclone is Case’s fourth straight studio triumph, and while there are surely other artists who have had as rewarding a first decade of the 21st Century as Case, it’s difficult to think of any who have had a better one.
The Unforgiving Sounds of Maow, the sole album from Case’s first combo, is a brief (16 songs in roughly 20 minutes) and spirited punkabilly romp. As vocals rotate between percussionist Case and bandmates C.C. Hammond and Tobey Black, all three deliver enjoyable performances, but Case’s saucy twang is the predictable standout, especially on “Ms. Lefevre” and a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “How Does That Grab You.”
In addition to her solo career, Case has several other ongoing concerns. Most notable is her membership in the New Pornographers. She also has spent time in the Sadies and Howe Gelb’s Band of Blacky Ranchette. The Corn Sisters, her project with Carolyn Mark, has produced one album, the off-the-cuff live recording The Other Women. It’s a shambling, good-natured affair highlighted by a cover of Nick Lowe’s “Endless Grey Ribbon,” but it doesn’t measure up to either woman’s solo work.