Neko Case - Biography
Neko Case’s solo career began at the height of the late ‘90s alt-country frenzy, and clearly owed much to the traditional country & western she was openly enamored with. But her diverse and sophisticated songwriting skills, as well as a power-house voice equally skilled at heart-rending fragility, quickly made it clear she would transcend simplistic categorization. Other female alt-country singers may have been content aping classic country or adding ironic twists to the form, but Case took its inherent melancholy and transplanted it squarely in the modern era, proving that loneliness, transience and the search for meaning weren’t the exclusive purview of any one musical niche or era.
Often peripatetic after her 1970 birth in Virginia, Case and her family eventually wound up in Tacoma. Feeling she was neglected, Case left home for good at 15 and immersed herself in the Northwest’s punk scene, landing in the Canadian act, Maow, in 1994. After leaving Vancouver with an art degree (which effectively terminated her visa), her 1997 solo debut came out on the Chicago label perhaps most associated with the modern outlaw side of the alt-country movement: Bloodshot Records.
Billed at the time as Neko Case & Her Boyfriends, The Virginian (1997 Bloodshot) featured Case on a mix of originals and classic country covers perfectly suited for her rich, powerful vibrato, including Loretta Lynn’s put-upon woman classic, "Somebody Led Me Away,” and the Everly Brothers’ “Bowling Green (on which she duets with future New Pornographers’ band mate Carl Newman). But it was her covers of Scott Walker’s “Duchess” and Ernest Tubb’s “Thanks a Lot” that showed off her skills as an interpreter, bringing her own sophistication to the former, and injecting the latter with a woman’s clear-eyed regret and even a flash of her sharp, sarcastic humor.
Case also showed she was more than an able lyricist on The Virginian; “High on Cruel” pulses with angry ingénue payback, the slow-dance ballad “Lonely Old Lies” could have been recorded during classic country’s heyday, and “Timber” opens the record with a twangy bang. And it’s the title track, one of several co-writes with Newman, where Case’s strong suit — the ability to appear both vulnerable and indomitable — really emerges, her voice and message inseparable. The rockabilly “Karoline” is the record’s only serious mis-step, Case’s canned growls and howls feeling forced and trite.
Despite its minor flaws, Case hit a note with The Virginian, one that was fully realized with her next record, Furnace Room Lullaby (2000 Bloodshot/2007 Anti-). From its eye-popping album art — on the front, Case prone on a filthy cement floor, perhaps the victim of an assault; on the back, Case rifling through an unconscious man’s wallet in a dingy rest room — to the host of hot-shot musicians offering support, the record is the declaration of a self-confident artist coming into her own.
No covers this time around, as Case co-wrote all 12 cuts with some help from artists she would often collaborate with in the future, especially the Sadies’ Dallas and Travis Good, Bob Egan, Jon Rauhaus, and Kelly Hogan. Case doesn’t waste any time yanking country & western into the modern era, making it seem like all of mainstream Nashville’s disastrous forays into pop and rock never even happened. Disc-opener “Set Out Running” captures trad-country’s blues without appearing self-conscious in the least; though the song is about a busted relationship, you can hear the younger Case’s wanderings informing the narrative, and it sure doesn’t sound like it was all high times and youthful adventure.
That nomadic aesthetic runs like connective tissue through the record, providing constant narrative tension as Case alternately yearns for the rooted nature of hometown life or the freedom of the road. On the country shuffle, “Guided By Wire,” Case acknowledges the importance to her music of “the nameless and all those surrogates” she’s encountered on the road, while admitting she “couldn't even tell you where I'm from.” Yet on “Thrice All American,” an unabashed homage to her adopted hometown of Tacoma, Case praises the “dusty old jewel in the South Puget Sound” for its unpretentious ways and allowing her to invent “her own history.”
The yearning for safe harbor is also palpable on “Porchlight,” where Case shows her tremendous singing range, making her modulations between ethereal falsetto and rich, Lynn-like twang seem effortless. Hogan assists on the high harmonies, while Egan’s National resonator and baritone guitar give the song a gorgeous bottom-end. Even on the straight-ahead torch song, “No Need to Cry,” Case longs for a missing lover with whom her thoughts are “tied to that interstate.” But “Mood to Burn Bridges” and “Whip the Blankets” are up-tempo numbers full of restless energy, the former indicting small-town, holier-than-thou gossipers, and the latter sizzling with the kind of reckless sexual tension that gets the nosy neighbors all atwitter in the first place.
The consistency of the songwriting in a variety of twangy styles is what makes the record so strong, but a trio of standouts could easily take their place among the best country songs of any era, period. “South Tacoma Way” is a first-class tearjerker, Case lamenting the death of an old lover whose funeral she can’t even bear to attend. Transcending all maudlin sentimentality, she takes the listener through various stages of grief so visceral you’d have to wonder about someone unable to feel the loss in their own gut, especially when the cello joins the high-and-lonesome guitars in lament. “Twist the Knife” carries almost the same weight, Case raising the ante beyond simple jilted-lover fare by exclaiming “You took what's young from me/I didn't deserve it, I gave it away.” Case’s vocals soar on this cut, which is also notable for the heavy bridge that takes it from country to cathartic indie rock and back again. And though the lost-love song “Bought and Sold” may be just two minutes long, it packs more emotion than the average full-length record when Case shares the guilt by fully disclosing her own role in things falling apart.
Case home-recorded 2001’s Canadian Amp (Lady Pilot) EP in Chicago, and the eight songs — six of them cover versions — have a bare-bones feel that would seem like a step back for most other artists. But Case imbues the songs with additional emotional heft or a key twist: she injects a woman’s perspective into Hank Williams’ “Alone and Forsaken” and Neil Young’s “Dreaming Man,” while maintaining the bleakness of the former and the wistful hope of the latter. And despite the lo-fi feel, the contributions of Andrew Bird, pedal steel wizard Rauhaus, the Handsome Family’s Brett Sparks, and what had become her touring band, the Sadies, continued to expand Case’s palette.
If she acknowledged her internal conflicts on Furnace Room Lullaby, on 2002’s Blacklisted — her last for Bloodshot -- Case performed the narrative equivalent of sticking a finger directly in the wounds. The result was a record primal in its emotions, but more musically nuanced and lyrically sophisticated. The title of the opening track — “Things That Scare Me” -- stands as an obvious road sign for what’s to follow, as Case makes the connection between her current conflicts and the elemental fears that haunt her, like the “same birds that followed me to school/When I was young/Were they trying to tell me something/Were they telling me to run?”
These themes run throughout Blacklisted, as do images of lonely highways, vacant homes, graveyards and guns, which litter the narratives like roadside detritus seen from passing vehicles. Impending dangers and unspecified threat seem to permeate the record, giving it the feeling, at times, of a waking nightmare where there’s “no sure footing,” as Case sings on “Outro With Bees.” Indeed, the only sign of the self-assured woman or playful ingénue from her first two records is on the record’s two cover versions, the twanged-up version of the standard “Look for Me (I’ll Be Around)” and the girl groups’ treatment of “Runnin’ Out of Fools” (a hit for Aretha Franklin). That might suggest a cold set of songs, and the record is in fact musically starker than Furnace Room Lullaby. But Case’s yearning for connection, and her honesty and vulnerability, provide warmth like a campfire in dark woods.
Nowhere is this more evident than on “Pretty Girls,” a clear-eyed look at abortion where Case defuses all the pro-life vitriol, male cluelessness, and parental guilt by simply offering a non-judgmental shoulder to lean on. But most of the narratives don’t offer such obvious succor. Cast in sparse, late-night arrangements that touch as much on torch jazz, folk and melancholic rock accents as country, the songs reflect Case’s growth as a writer (she wrote all but two cuts herself and was no longer billed with “the Boyfriends”). They also put her marvelous voice front and center. Two songs in particular highlight Case’s expanding range: she sounds as loud and thunderous on the chorus of “Deep Red Bells” as a carillon in full-peal, and as delicate as china on the loneliness lament, “I Wish I was the Moon.” In addition to some of the usual suspects like the Sadies, Hogan and Rauhaus, two masters at conjuring spooky soundscapes — Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino — help Case sculpt music as mysterious, wide open, and evocative as her imagery and narratives.
If Case had any doubt that she’d taken another huge step forward, signing with a prestigious label like Anti- should have removed it. Home to iconoclasts and signature voices like Tom Waits, Joe Henry and Nick Cave (with whom Case had recently toured), Anti- rushed to get their first Case recording out, and in 2004 released an 11-song hodge-podge of live cuts, re-recordings of originals, and five covers. To her credit, few stop-gaps sound as good as The Tigers Have Spoken. Backed by the Sadies, whose psychedelic twang fits Case’s natural reverb to a tee, and helped on vocals by Hogan and ex-Corn Sister Carolyn Mark, Case shows on the live cuts that her amazing voice is far from a studio trick. She breezes through diverse fare like Buffy St. Marie’s “A Soulful Shade of Blue,” Freakwater’s “Hex,” the Shangri La’s “Train to Kansas City,” and Loretta Lynn’s “Rated X” with equal aplomb, while the self-penned title-track is one of the best fusions of the Sadies and Case on tape.
Case showed her new label that there would be no drop-off in the quality of her studio work with 2006’s luminous Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Again turning to the Sadies, the Calexico brain trust, Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb and Hogan — and getting memorable contributions from the Band’s Garth Hudson and the Flat Duo Jets’ Dexter Romweber -- to fashion haunting backdrops for her commanding voice, Case’s songs here seem to be performing a form of regression therapy. If Furnace Room Lullaby examined recent memory just to put it all behind her, and Blacklisted sought to make sense of her transient past, Fox Confessor roots around in some of the primal childhood feelings and fears that formed her, resulting in something like nursery rhymes filtered through grown-up sensibilities — all be it ones equally powerless to explain the irrational.
Fox Confessor is built from the same sparse-sounding and spectral musical blocks as Blacklisted, and the mood of mystery, suspense, fear and longing is pervasive again. This time Case delves deeper into the contradictions, dualities and just plain happenstance of what constitutes our true selves, beginning with the extraordinary opener “Margaret Vs. Pauline.” Contrasting the fortunate and well-adjusted Pauline, for whom “everything’s so easy,” with hard-luck Margaret, whose “jaw aches from wanting” and who’ll “never be as clean as the cool side of satin, Pauline,” Case immediately establishes the record’s wistful patina over Hudson’s piano runs. These contrasts and ambiguities abound: the “tender wolves” (the human kind) that lurk in “Star Witness,” the beauty of the title track’s “flooded fields,” and even her own role as either “the mean girl or somebody's in-between girl” in the psychedelic spaghetti Western romp with the Sadies, “Hold On, Hold On.”
But befitting her growing stature as a writer, most of these song structures have been fundamentally altered — deconstructed, to a point, but mostly re-imagined as expressionist pieces where mood, music and narrative are indistinguishable. Eschewing traditional verse-verse-chorus blueprints, the songs seem instead to rise into the air on the power of Case’s voice, her narrative imagination, and a few crucial instrumental elements. Strings and keys play more central roles, sometimes turning the guitars to support accents. “Dirty Knife” almost feels like a stand-up bass and Case duet, with Convertino’s musical drumming providing the barest scaffolding; together with Hogan she re-casts the traditional, “John Saw That Number,” into a multi-voiced gospel hoedown worthy of the Louvin Brothers, and on “Maybe Sparrow” and “That Teenage Feeling” the solos are tweaked to avoid any notion of guitar hero excess.
Memories flood the record, from the childhood images on “Star Witness” — “Trees break the sidewalk/And the sidewalk skins my knees/There's glass in my thermos/And blood on my jeans” — to the lost love of the disc-closer “The Needle Has Landed.” But Case is hyper-aware that these confessions lead to only more ambiguity. She sums it up simply enough on “A Widow’s Toast,” warning the widow who swears she’ll put her “’hands on the truth, by God,’” that “it’s faster, love, than you and me.”
Together with an appearance on Austin City Limits (released in 2006 on DVD and 2007 on CD), Fox Confessor expanded Case’s fan-base in all directions, won across-the-board critical praise, and even earned her a cover story or two in the national musical press. More important has been her artistic growth; with each record Case has used her powerful and expressive voice in new and intriguing ways, always seeming to know when to pull back or pull out all the stops, and in the contrast making it even more luminous. But if there’s one thing her equally thoughtful narratives and carefully crafted music would suggest, it’s that her restless spirit wouldn’t be able to rest on her laurels even if it wanted to.