Sweethearts of the Rodeo

Chicago transplants Neko Case and Kelly Hogan carry the torch for 21st-century twang

The setting is very much old Chicago: an earthy Italian eatery tucked inside a shabby storefront. Though gentrification has sent local real estate prices soaring, this section of dim, boxy warehouses and corner bars still slumbers in the soot of a century of industry, crouched along the river just beyond the shadow of the city skyline. Inside, dozens of framed snapshots crowd the restaurant walls: the family, posed around a table. Famous patrons, local heroes at the tiny back bar: Harry Caray, Hugh Hefner.

But forget that iconography. Caray, the florid Cubs and White Sox announcer and fabled Mayor of Rush Street (the drinking district just a few blocks east) passed away before Neko Case moved here last year. Auburn-haired and quick with a crooked smile, the young singer sits in a darkened corner, facing those faded photos. This is the new Chicago, where, they say, dead people don't vote.

Case's frequent touring partner and close friend Kelly Hogan is, by comparison, an institution: She has lived here three full years. Still, these relative newcomers are fixtures on the local insurgent-country scene that has grown up around a network of artist-friendly clubs and independent labels (foremost among them Bloodshot Records, the postpunk roots-rock set's Sub Pop, where Hogan worked as a publicist when she first came to town). Hogan and Case are just two among many Chicago roots players whose roots are elsewhere. The local indie-rock scene of the early Nineties rocketed lifelong Chicagoans Liz Phair and Billy Corgan to stardom and then burned out, but the alt-country cabal has sustained itself (albeit with a decidedly lower profile) by attracting talent from all over the nation--and, in the case of Mekons Jon Langford and Sally Timms, around the globe.

Women we love: Neko Case and Kelly Hogan
Women we love: Neko Case and Kelly Hogan

Case's biography is pocked with relocation and wanderlust, as is her second album, Furnace Room Lullaby (Bloodshot). "I couldn't even tell you where I'm from," she sings in "Guided by Wire," and, indeed, her biography can read like a tour itinerary. Born in Virginia, she was raised in New England and Washington state, where her start as a touring musician came as a drummer with the Tacoma punk trio Maow. She's been on the road ever since, only occasionally alighting in Vancouver, Toronto, Seattle, and now Chicago.

In this light, the brooding ballad "Thrice All-American" sounds like a confessional. "I can't seem to fathom the dark of my history," sings Case, her delivery demonstrating an easy affinity for the blues. "I invented my own in Tacoma." An agile vocalist, Case is as likely to strike with a supremely confident sneer as she is to release a long and painful wail. But the record doesn't rest on her voice; That's just one element of a singularly moody and thickly textured sound that's more than the sum of its parts (a pinch of Ron Sexsmith's forlorn folk pop; a dollop of the Sadies' Travis Good's spooky surf guitar).

Across the table, Kelly Hogan ponders the menu. "I just love Chicago," she says. "It's great for music. And it's working-class. You can steer clear of the snobbery-obbery, you know--fancy people. Fancy people are fine, but they give me the willies."

Hogan's vowels are elongated by the Georgia drawl she acquired over years spent in Athens and Atlanta. There she fronted the Jody Grind, played with the Rock-a-Teens, and released her now-out-of-print solo debut, The Whistle Only Dogs Can Hear. Upon moving to Lake Michigan's southwestern shore, she tried briefly to stay out of music, but soon found herself singing with friends--and on their records. Beneath the Country Underdog, Hogan's Jon Langford-produced Bloodshot bow, finally puts to disc the silky, sassy country soul that Chicago showgoers quickly came to expect.

Dressed-down onstage in thrifty threads, the 35-year-old Hogan has baby-faced looks that hardly match the voice that leaps from her throat. Yet, trading verses with guitarist Andy Hopkins, she attacks the Loretta Lynn-Conway Twitty duet "Wild Mountain Berries" with carnal fire, and she's just as skilled filling the breaks of a Gershwin tune with a nimble scat or exhaling Willie Nelson's "I Still Can't Believe You're Gone" with a woozy ache. The soul nugget "Sudden Stop" melts in her mouth, her tone rising to a wet hiccup just this side of a sob. (Comparing their individual vocal styles, Case says simply, "I'm the hotdog, and she's the frosting.")

"People give you the business about not writing your own songs," says Hogan, who takes pride in her considerable talents as an interpreter. As an avowed obscurantist and all-around music nut, she revels in unearthing forgotten gems from the past. And though absorbed by what she calls her newest "posthumous crush" (the late gospel legend Walter Jackson, whose visage is even on her computer's screensaver), Hogan is just as likely to cover tunes by overlooked contemporaries. Her take on the Magnetic Fields' "Papa Was a Rodeo" may be the year's most sublime five minutes of recorded sound. Hogan is nonetheless sensitive to critics who slight singing and exalt songwriting. "Everyone respects Loretta Lynn as a songwriter," she notes. "But [guitarist] Andy [Hopkins] was looking at a bunch of her old records and figured out that I do the same ratio of originals to covers-- about three of ten. That was like getting my Christmas present in July."

Both women possess a powerfully erotic stage presence. Case is known to introduce "Whip the Blankets" by propositioning anyone within earshot, and has earned something of a reputation for performing in various states of undress. She cultivates the image offstage, too: Looking every bit the femme fatale in red coat and heels in the photo on the back of her new disc, Neko sits atop a man's sprawled form, thumbing through his wallet. A recent issue of Esquire included a full-page glam shot of a leather-clad Case beneath the caption "Women We Love."

Hogan is more likely just to stick to ribald banter, which she employs to break down barriers between band and fans. When the pair toured the U.K. last month, Kelly says, "Everybody who came to our shows was over 50 with gray hair and a beard. So it was fun to blow those dudes' minds--'cause older dudes have more money to spend on CDs."

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