If you hear Neko Case, you can't ignore her. Her voice is big, bold, brash, full of vitality and hard-earned knowledge. She has something to say, and she's gonna grab you by the neck and hold on tight until you hear it. A good Neko Case song has the ability to turn on a dime, to remind you that in real life, emotions make sharp turns without warning.
Case hails from Tacoma, Wash., a town not exactly known for its country music. She started making music in the art-punk underground as the drummer for a band called Maow before she started writing songs. It turned out that her experiences, her views of the world, were a perfect fit for the country music she'd grown up loving.
"I listened to country music when I was a kid, because of my grandmother," explains Case in a recent interview. "Just, you know, old country music, the old guard -- Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, that kind of stuff."
The music on her two albums, The Virginian and the brand-new Furnace Room Lullaby, both released on the reliable Bloodshot Records label, is descended from the likes of Cline and Williams, with heavy doses of the Bakersfield stylings of Buck Owens and a lot of pop/rock influences she won't name. Case's music has a high twang content, but her songs range outside traditional melodies more than those of many young artists looking back to country's past. She is developing before our eyes into an inventive and unique songwriter.
The Virginian was a high-octane record that set itself apart from the clichéd country-punk territory mostly by virtue of the chops of the musicians and the love for the material Case brought to her vocals. It was a pure delight, with six covers of classic honky-tonk songs (if you stretch enough to consider the Everly Brothers' "Bowling Green" fit for a honky-tonk) and six original songs. The standout was "Timber," which happened to be the first song she wrote that stayed with her.
"I didn't really think I was turning a corner at the time I wrote it," says Case. "I was cleaning my house and I was singing this song, so I just kind of wrote it down. When it came time to record the album, I only had six songs, so it was an easy choice to put it on."
"Timber" is the template for Case's style. Everything is built on a solid rhythmic foundation and arresting guitar parts; here, a bouncy country shuffle and rippling, languid guitar licks underscore Case's lexicon of country-influenced mannerisms. She belts out the simple melody in a confident midrange tone, then soars into an upper register for emphasis on the chorus. Everything about the recording is set to engage the listener's attention. There is no wasted motion on any Neko Case record.
Furnace Room Lullaby builds on what The Virginian started, then improves on it. Case sings with even more confidence as her songs move from the obvious metaphors of "Timber" to the emotionally complex treatments of love, sex, human connection and nostalgia of "Set Out Running," "Whip the Blankets" and "South Tacoma Way."
Case doesn't think of songwriting as a particularly unusual process. "Mostly," she says, "they just pop into my head, pretty much. I don't know -- either they pop into my head and I like them and I finish them, or maybe I'll be playing guitar and think of something that way. You don't have to really force those kinds of things. You can be occupied doing something completely mundane and things come into your head. You can either put them on tape or keep singing them to yourself over and over. If it's a good melody, it doesn't go away."
This method of work is probably what makes Case's melodies slide from country-music foundations to something uniquely her own. For the most part, Case writes with collaborators, including Brian Connelly of Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet (the band that did the music for the Kids in the Hall TV show), and the well-respected singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith. But these songs sound like the work of one writer, so one could assume it's Case's melodic sense, born in her head without instrumentation, that takes them down the paths they go.
The new record starts out with three gems in a row. "Set Out Running" is a masterful torch song; Case's rich powerhouse alto opens the record by singing "Want to get it all behind me" with just the right hint of twang in her voice. She sets the tone for the album, serving notice that she will describe what she knows, even when she wants to forget it. "If I'd known heartbreak was coming/I would have set out running," she sings, but the truth is clear that she doesn't run from anything.
"Guided by Wire" is about the experience of listening to music, and as such it offers an unusual take on the old theme of "My life was saved by rock & roll." Here the implication is that music saved Case from madness. The song has a great line that jumps out again and again: "There was always someone singing my life back to me." Sure, it fits the standard image of music as a mirror, offering up songs that match the life experiences of the listener. But it also works if you consider a listener desperate for a connection that will restore meaning to life.
"It's just a song about how important music is," explains Case. "We live in a time when music doesn't seem like it's that important. Musicians get treated worse than ever. Record companies are all folding and being absorbed, and people are being dropped, and you still can't get paid halfway decent. People don't see how important music is as a sort of surrogate friend, you know. It can really get you through hard times when you can't take advice from your friends, who can't be objective. You can find your own thing to relate to."
"Porchlight" is an unearthly little melody that starts after a delicate acoustic-guitar introduction. Case chants at the top of her range a chorus that insinuates itself into your head (it'll pop out at random intervals hours after you hear it); she double-tracks this part, with two vocals above her normal register. The effect is eerily beautiful, mysterious and elusive. The song never completely gives up its secrets. The singer is on a journey, trying to reach the front door of someone she loves, but the porch light remains so far away she can't get there. She longs to be forgiven for something she never describes. It is mesmerizing.
These are merely the first of several great songs scattered over the rest of the record. And the ones in between are merely good. Case has put together a nice package of diverse moods, ranging from elegantly simple ballads like "No Need to Cry" and "Furnace Room Lullaby" to rampaging two-step frenzies like "Mood to Burn Bridges" or "Whip the Blankets." She has a penchant for waltz time, but you don't notice this until you've played the record a few times. The melodies are too good, the lyrics too interesting, the arrangements too diverse.
When you go to the store, just look for the album cover with a pretty young woman wearing a leather jacket, lying face-down on a sidewalk. "See, we had taken a bunch of really stiff portraits -- file photos, really," says Case. "My friend Erica Henderson took them, and we had to finish off a roll of film. So I said, "Let's shoot some crime photos.' Those were the ones that turned out to be the best.
"Stiff portrait-style photography is getting to be really boring to me. That one seemed like graphically it was the nicest. I didn't have a bunch of makeup on. I like to look like myself. It was just kind of a joke. It wasn't like, "Oh, we're gonna make this really heavy.' I didn't want to be wearing a cowboy hat. I didn't want to be standing by railroad tracks. I didn't want to be playing guitar -- none of those things people like to do."
Neko Case is a contrary sort, then, but if that nature results in albums this good, let's hope she keeps on trying to be different.
Neko Case opens for Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire at the Side Door on Friday, March 24.