There exist few successful refugees from the "alt-country" movement that was omnipresent in the mid-to-late '90s. Emerging at the tail end with her 1997 debut (The Virginian), Neko Case has crafted a solo career that, at the core, fits the alt-country classification but has wildly benefited from a creative restlessness that's found her straying outside the genre's boundaries, especially as a member of the high-quality power-pop supergroup the New Pornographers. It also helps that Case's solo work is simply of a much higher quality than her rootsy contemporaries. Not to be overly unkind to her genre of choice, but there's no shortage of female Americana artists of the acutely introspective ilk, and Case sits firmly at the top of the heap.
Like many indie artists who eventually turned to more folksy, personal concerns, Case got her start in indie and punk-rock bands, specifically in a geographic locale that's always been very friendly to such music: the Pacific Northwest. She played drums in a few bands and then entered art school across the border in Vancouver. That's where she hooked up with a scene that would eventually result in her backing band (the Boyfriends), but more importantly, Vancouver would become an underground heavy-hitter, exporting bands such as Destroyer, Zumpano, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, and Case herself.
While seemingly tailor-made for the alt-country label Bloodshot, The Virginian boasted such sharp songwriting that it positively stuck out from the rest of the genre. The same can be said for the superior follow-up, Furnace Room Lullaby (2000). It should be noted that Case readily shuns the term "alt-country." And a true confirmation of her skills is the ability to transfer them to a completely different genre, as the Case-written songs in the New Pornographers' oeuvre proves.
Blacklisted, from 2002, was Case's last for Bloodshot, and, perhaps appropriately, it signaled a departure from obvious country-music tendencies with a widescreen torch-song feel, something that may have emerged by way of her previous tour supporting Nick Cave. Blacklisted brought Case a deserved new level of exposure. But it would be four years down the road before the next studio album, last year's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (on major-funded "indie" label Anti-). This is easily the best of the best, the place to start with Case.
Case had worked with members of the Sadies and Calexico before (and does again for Fox Confessor) but adds to the creative pool with perfect-fit collaborators Howe Gelb (of Giant Sand) and Garth Hudson (of the Band). Fox Confessor still dips into pure country aspirations yet is so sublime in its utilization of other influences (baroque pop, '70s singer-songwriter, '70s country rock) that it denies lazy classification.
Never coming across as a dilettante or slummer, Case seems to actually understand what makes old-school country the cultural force that it is. This is someone who has done her homework and parlayed it into a formidable body of work, as opposed to a rocker who woke up one day and decided to "be country." With a voice almost uncanny in its perfection, justification is lent to the fact that she requires her shows to be non-smoking.
Case is at a point in her career where she has created what is largely deemed a masterwork (Fox Confessor), accepted and loved by a relatively wide demographic of music fans without succumbing to adult-contemporary brunch-music trappings like a post-modern Norah Jones (Cat Power, I'm looking at you, and now I'm looking at rocks being thrown at me in the streets) or deviating from the fiercely independent agenda that she's tightly held onto since the beginning of her career.
The Hi-Tone Café
Friday, April 13th
Doors open at 8 p.m.; tickets $20
Read the rest of Stephen Deusner's review from this week's Flyer.