With her high-powered voice in top form, assisted by an ace backing band, Neko Case recorded a live album last year. Guess what? It's the best of her career. To get there, this indie-rock heartthrob takes a step back, away from the art and pretense of her fine previous records, and offers a collection grounded in old covers, performed in a tasteful, sophisticated manner.
After years of living in the indie-rock ghetto, Chicago-by-way-of-Vancouver's Case is going mainstream not by selling out, but by paying tribute to her artistic forebears. In her own way, she's saying that the geezers did have something going for them, after all.
The Tigers Have Spoken is fourth in a series of well-received records
that all linger on the boundary between indie-rock and country. Like her previous
albums, it features Case's full and throaty voice, a reverb-soaked mix and a
generally haunting vibe. Many of her fine previous albums have been atmospheric,
artsy affairs the cover of Furnace Room Lullaby pictured her face-down on the floor. Blacklisted, from 2002, coupled terrific songwriting with production that seemed to put her voice in the bottom of a metallic can. With that sound, she emphasized aesthetic over emotion and delivered an unsettling coldness to the singing, distancing herself from the listener.
In the live context, however, her sound is much more approachable it's as if she's realized that a concert is as much a performance as plain old entertainment. Her voice is out front and her band hits the groove. Even without the audience applause and shouts, the echoes of the performance space and the rawness of the playing provide a warmth to the music that's far beyond her studio recordings.
This openness is matched by her song selection. Instead of the standard live-album-as-greatest-hits-record, Tigers focuses
mostly on covers. And the songs she selects are old ones: bluegrass classics
like "Wayfaring Stranger," forgotten nuggets from Buffy Ste. Marie, Loretta Lynn,
and Boston's garage-rock heroes the Nervous Eaters. These songs are just plain
good the public-domain "This Little Light" is timeless and in some
cases have been unjustly overlooked, like the Shangri-Las' "Train From Kansas
City." Alongside some of her own favorites like "Blacklisted" and a few new tracks,
the oldies dominate. The exuberance of singing in a rock 'n' roll band trumps
pushing her own ideas out there, particularly when the playing's good.
And it's quite good: Toronto's spaghetti-western quartet The Sadies forms the
core of the backing band. Their understated, precise playing doesn't make the
songs erupt with joy or exuberance so much as give them a warm glaze that speaks
of respect and musicianship. The aforementioned "Train From Kansas City" has
a wonderful churn driven by the rhythm section and punctuated by Kelly Hogan's
harmony singing. On "Soulful Shade of Blue," Jon Rauhouse's slide guitar punctuates
the melody, adding an additional lilt that certainly made the crowd move, albeit
in a hipster country-rock shuffle.
Still, it's Case's singing and personality that dominate, from the opener, "If
You Knew," where her voice really becomes a powerhouse, to the closing track,
which features a bit of between-song dialogue about tigers and provides
whimsy so that nothing is taken too seriously.
I don't interpret The Tigers Have Spoken as Case's tribute to the roots-rock weirdos, but a straightforward back-to-basics move. Gone are the trappings of making an artistic statement or putting distance between her and the listener; here, she lets her song selection and backing band create music that is comfortably approachable. So she selects songs that are somehow special, and presents them with great playing and singing, in a way that clearly means something to her. My bet is that they'll mean something to you, too.