Naturally Neko

Alt-country's Neko Case releases a refreshingly gimmick-free live album.

What do this gal and Foghat have in common? Read - on.
What do this gal and Foghat have in common? Read on.
In Yo La Tengo's 1999 "Sugarcube" video, Ira Kaplan and his flanks are forced by their record label to attend Rock School, where they learn to "Remember the Foghat rule: Your fourth album must be double live." By now, VH1's recent obsession with ephemera has taken the charm out of self-reflexive pop poop, but Yo La Tengo's lesson in rock professionalism is still one of the funniest and truest bits of rock parody around. The live rock album is too often an occasion for ego-flexing and silly musical theatrics, unbefitting a genre of music that claims the stage as native ground. Country/roots-rock singer Neko Case is well aware of this.

"I wanted to avoid a self-indulgent 120-minute space-jam of old material," says Case of her latest. Ensconced in an Arizona studio with her greyhound Lloyd, she's working on her next studio album, due this spring.

The Tigers Have Spoken, her current release, is more than enough to tide over fans of the Chicago-based Virginia native, who after leaving home at 15, spent time in the Pacific Northwest and Toronto. True, it is her fourth album, but in flagrant violation of the Foghat rule, it's also a compact and satisfying 35 minutes of mostly new songs and covers. The 11-song collection is a live album that not only avoids live-album clichés, but reveals details of the artist's musical personality previously hidden by her studio work.

It's no accident that Tigers is a different kind of concert document. The set was worked out in seven rehearsals over the two weeks leading up to the March-April '04 Chicago and Toronto gigs that yielded the album. "I would say 90 percent of recording artists have always made live records a documentation of what they've been doing live for several years," says Dallas Good, who, with his brother Travis, leads the Toronto-based Sadies, longtime Case collaborators. "And it's songs that these people can sing in their sleep."

Tigers contains only one song that Case has previously recorded: the title track to her last studio album, Blacklisted. That track finds a singer shining without the help of studio editing or multiple takes -- essentially the best that can be expected from a conventional live album.

"I was just grateful to hit those Olympic notes," Case says of "Blacklisted." "My ghost-balls ached afterward. I always write songs for Aretha Franklin to sing, not me. I don't know what my problem is."

The title track of The Tigers Have Spoken, starker and more emotionally direct than "Blacklisted" and most of Case's other originals, was penned in rehearsal a week before being recorded. "It was simple and written in about 30 minutes," she says. "I think I may be heading more that way. I'm trying to pare it down a bit."

Rather than the torchy twang Case is known for, the song is rangy folk-rock -- a ragged take on the darker side of the Byrds and maybe the most powerful song she's ever written. To an animal-lover, in fact, its haiku-like description of a chained tiger's miserable life and death is devastating: "And he lived that way forever, away from the other tigers . . . he walked in circles till he was crazy."

"It really is just about a tiger," says Case. "Some reviewers, bless their hearts, have thought it was a metaphor for a relationship gone bad. I try not to write relationship songs at all -- I suck at it."

But it's not just well-trod originals that leave most live albums dull -- covers, too, become gimmicks. Popular bands fish out obscure material from cult acts to make themselves seem cool; heavy bands take a wimpy pop song and "make it rock"; pasty technical bluesmen bid for legitimacy by mangling gutbucket bayou classics. The covers on Tigers -- neither grandstanding nor gimmicky -- sound as natural coming from Case's lips as her originals. Backed by the propulsive hard-country sound of the Sadies, Case is sweet and woeful on Buffy St. Marie's "Soulful Shade of Blue," funky and candid on Loretta Lynn's "Rated X," and passionate on the hymnlike "Hex," written by Catherine Irwin of the influential alt-country band Freakwater.

"Most of these are songs I have loved for a long time," says Case. "We didn't think too hard about it. It took the Sadies and me about 15 minutes to decide what we wanted to do."

One cover song in particular is revelatory: the wired-up version of the Shangri-Las' girl-group classic "Train From Kansas City." "We both worship the Shangri-Las," she says of herself and the Sadies. "They are tough and snotty, and they lisp a bit. I love cheesy, dramatic spoken-word in songs."

Case's affection for the Shangri-Las makes sense in a way that doesn't crystallize until you hear her sing "Train From Kansas City." These were the tough girls from Queens, who fell in love with the leader of the pack and set the mold that made possible the Ramones, Patti Smith, and just about anything cool, heartfelt, and dangerous. They're a world away from Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, and the other country chanteuses to whom Case is often compared. Lynn and Cline, of course, do not lack grit, but there's a toughness and guardedness about Case's soaring, smoked-honey voice that, in 1964, would have fit better between the Ronettes and the Rolling Stones at the pop-fest T.A.M.I. show than at the Grand Ole Opry.

Case's voice is also as distinctive as that of any current singer. "The first time I heard her voice was when she sang with Maow, her old punk-rock band," says Good. "Her voice pretty much says it all." A late bloomer who didn't sing until she was 25, during a post-collegiate stay in Toronto, Case has been working with the Sadies since her 1997 debut The Virginian. Tigers is just about the strongest testament to the vitality of a collaboration that a singer-songwriter and a band could hope for.

After an on-again, off-again musical relationship with the Sadies over the past six years, Case is working with them on her next record. "I can't tell what it sounds like yet, though it's not completely directionless," says Case. "It's still a studio mystery, even to me."