Success has as many definitions as there are people who strive for it. In the case of Neko Case, her idea of success, at least so far when it comes to albums, is great, resonant lokey collections of what you’d have to call modern folk or countrified indie rock tunes that showcase her bigger than you’d expect alto voice which is always recorded with some amount of echo added and often in tandem with her harmony partner, Kelly Hogan. That’s the same Hogan who’s out on tour right now with Case and Jakob Dylan in support of his record Women + Country.
Case, who’s one of the female voices in the New Pornographers (see Aural Robert in the May issue of Stereophile), has made a series of killer records that confuse or put some people off because they do not seek super accessibility, and tend to be mysteriously titled and very determinedly eclectic. She has great talent, and if you watch her live or listen to her records, you get the feeling she has bigger, even more classic records in her, but they just haven’t quite come out yet. The fact that she’s signed to Anti Records, one of the most prescient labels out there, confirms that she has both proof and potential.
Just to make sure I wasn’t being too hard on her with that last comment, looking for shit that doesn’t exist just because I’m a ragass critic, I went back and listened to the last three, The Tigers Have Spoken, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, and Middle Cyclone and yes, the woman has that distinctive, deeper than you think, resonant voice. It may be that I just feel like she’s never had the kind of killer set of tunes on an album that her voice deserves. This sounds weird, but she’s someone who should be bigger, more well known, than she is.
That said, the live The Tigers Have Spoken which has smokin’, rocked up covers of Loretta Lynn’s “Rated X” and Boston rock scene luminary Steve Cataldo’s “Loretta,” has an immense amount of energy, some of it thanks to her usual backing band, The Sadies as well as singers Hogan and Carolyn Mark and pedal steel pro Jon Rauhouse. Made in Tucson, Arizona, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2005), has a certain religiosity to it, a secular gospel kind of feel, in tunes like the opener “Margaret Vs. Pauline” or “John Saw the Number” where Case really lets her ringing voice soar to the rafters. Again the band really kills on that record as well, with Tucson musicians like Calexico and Howe Gelb (Giant Sand) joining Dexter Romweber and Garth Hudson. Which brings us to her latest, Middle Cyclone which was released in 2008 and contains one of the most iconic album cover art images ever that features Case crouching on the hood of a 70’s Mercury Cougar brandishing a sword. Again recorded in Tucson, with essentially the same band with some key additions like M. Ward, Steve Berlin, and Lucy Wainwright Roche, this one finds Case in full voice as always but seemingly more at ease, closer to have a definable style that is uniquely her. Again, it’s quirky indie folk rock buoyed by her songwriting which has never been stronger than in tunes like “The Next Time You Say Forever,” and the really fun, slightly jangly, “People Got a Lotta of Nerve.” Always a greater chooser and interpreter of covers, Case here brings her voice, a new flavor, to a heartfelt version of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me.” Not to slag her earlier, twangier records which also have their charms but the woman is clearly making better records each time out. It will interesting to see what she records once she’s off her tour with Jakob Dylan.