A Case Study

Is Neko Case the queen of country music or just a faux Shania?

If the scoundrels who control the music conglomerates were even half a birthday candle brighter than their vassals who run country radio, Neko Case's Blacklisted (Bloodshot) would have gone triple platinum a week after it hit the streets. Case has the kind of high, clear "pure country" voice that could turn a barnful of tigers into butter--or if not into butter, then at least into a barnful of horny tigers. Her tunes bristle with enough hooks to fill a bait shop. And her lyrics are rich with fast trains, lonesome roads, love, and loss. In a musical realm where a front-porch Pollyanna like Cyndi Thomson talks about "keeping it real," Case is about as bullshit-free as Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard. In short, she's got everything it takes to make it in the country game.

You'd think. But the Nashville establishment, like the honchos at Clear Channel and ABC, has never been known to take chances with someone who won't let them squeeze her into bare-midriff tops and leather flag pants with the president's handprints on the back pockets. Even a quick glance at Case's info reveals why the big hats might be a bit hesitant about trying to make Case the next Shania, or even the next Lucinda. She considers Tacoma, Washington, her hometown. She cut her musical teeth playing drums in punk-rock bands. She graduated from art school. She plays with those uncompromising purveyors of perfect pop, the New Pornographers. Her original family name is not Williams or Smith: It's Shefschenko. ("Case" was a welcoming gift from the INS.) And, most telling, she admitted in a 1999 Mote MGZN interview, "I'm really not very country." Even Case's ace in the hole, her Virginia birth, doesn't count for all that much: The blessed event took place in Alexandria, a suburb of Washington, D.C.--a place where the word country is, often as not, followed by club.

None of these facts would be enough on their own to keep Case off the Nashville fast track. Shania Twain, after all, is Canadian, and Garth Brooks has dabbled (however unsuccessfully) in rock. And not all country artists are Bible-thumping simpletons: Lucinda Williams, for example, is a highly literate poet's daughter. (Although it's important to note that Nashville didn't make Williams--Williams did, and it took her awhile.) But Case is still an outsider who sings about the moon far more than she croons about Jesus or domestic difficulties. In a genre that celebrates mundane connectedness--to God, family, home, and friends--that's a liability.

Take the album opener, "Things That Scare Me," an up-tempo bluegrass-inflected tune (with banjo ably provided by Case, who also plays guitar and saw on the album). "Things" could potentially land on a Civil War film soundtrack, were it not for lyrics like: "Fluorescent lights engage/Like birds frying on a wire/Same birds that followed me to school when I was young/Were they trying to tell me something?/Were they telling me to run?" Case displays a certain vulnerability, which springs not from human relationships, but from her perception of unseen forces. In that sense, she recovers the part of country music's secret history that harks back to English folk tunes and the blues. But, unlike Robert Johnson and his forebears, Case has a way of turning the hellhounds on her trail into her allies: The next verse begins with the line "The hammer clicks in place/The world's gonna pay."

Case keeps her album darkly surreal, eschewing cheatin' songs and declarations of everlasting love in favor of powerful imagery that rings more with Charles Baudelaire than Charley Pride. Childhood is a favorite point of reference, as in "Deep Red Bells": "It looks a lot like engine oil, and tastes like being poor and small/And popsicles in summer." Even "I Wish I Was the Moon," one of the album's apparent instant country classics, reinforces her essential strangeness with its chorus, "I'm so tired/I'm so tired/And I wish I was the moon tonight."

As with nearly any Case release, Blacklisted includes a couple of exemplary covers. On "Look for Me (I'll Be Around)," first popularized by Sarah Vaughn, Case throws away the torch and instead lights the song with the glow of her own romantic obsession. "Runnin' out of Fools" is a waltzy I know better than to fall for you again ballad that was given an uncharacteristically prim treatment by Aretha Franklin in the early '60s, only to be fully ignited by Rochelle Fleming and First Choice at the dawn of disco, and later covered by Elvis Costello. But the song becomes an anthem of defiance in Case's hands, or, uh, lungs. In each instance, she seizes the cover song and takes it to the brink of madness, not so much for country as for herself.

For all its essential strangeness, Blacklisted is classic country in a lot of ways. Producers Darryl Neudorf (who also co- produced Case's 2000 album Furnace Room Lullaby) and Craig Schumacher stick to the reverb-infused model of the original Nashville Sound pioneered in the '50s by Patsy Cline producer Owen Bradley. For the most part, Case's supporting cast--which includes Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino, Giant Sand's Howe Gelb, the Sadies' Dallas Good, Kelly Hogan, and Mary Margaret O' Hara--plays it pretty straight. The album's few alt-country instrumental touches, like the drums on "Deep Red Bells" and the guitar on "Blacklisted," are far too subtle to alienate pop fans. And "Stinging Velvet," "I Wish I Was The Moon," and the album's title track, would undoubtedly receive a warm welcome on any truck-stop jukebox in the hemisphere.

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