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She's The Man
by Buck Quigley
Neko Case brings her triumphant muse to Babeville
Like a lovable drifter, Neko Case has been charting a unique career path since the release of her first solo effort, The Virginian, in 1997. That record was a collection of originals and covers that unabashedly embraced a classic country sound, and showcased both the power and vulnerability of her remarkable voice. It even included guest appearances by the Everly Brothers on her cover of their 1967 track “Bowling Green,” giving her major cred among the alt.country crowd. A closer listen to the complexity of her original lyrics at the time might’ve tipped fans off to the fact that there were multiple layers to the dolled-up and kiss-curled songstress pictured on the cover artwork.
At the time, few knew Case had been the drummer for Vancouver-based all-girl punk trio Maow, whose only full-length release was 1996’s The Unforgiving Sounds of Maow, which featured fourteen original tunes that clocked in at under two-minutes apiece—three of them lasting less than a minute in length. Still, the two covers did have a country twang: a 59-second version of Wanda Jackson’s “Mean Mean Man” and a two-minute interpretation of Nancy Sinatra’s “How Does that Grab You?” In 1999, she joined Canadian indie band the New Pornographers, and she’s been on all six of their releases. The Virginia-born Case, who spent her teenage years in Tacoma, Washington, and earned a BFA from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver, is affectionately referred to as an honorary Canadian as a result.
In 2000, Neko Case and Her Boyfriends released their second country album, Furnace Room Lullaby, which she followed with Canadian Amp in 2001—an EP that included a cover of Neil Young’s “Dreaming Man” and “Alone and Forsaken” by Hank Williams. These were followed by Blacklisted (2002), and The Tigers Have Spoken (2004)—a live album recorded in Chicago and Toronto, where she was backed by Canadian country and rock band the Sadies—but none of these could have prepared listeners for 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.
Recorded in Tuscon, Arizona over the course of two years while other projects were taking place, Fox Confessor featured more poetic lyrics and complex song structures than on any of her previous efforts, fine as those may have been. The record wound up on many critics’ “best of” lists for the year and greatly expanded her audience.
In 2009, Case followed up with Middle Cyclone, which featured more songs that veered away from her alt.country beginnings—carving out her own section of indie-folk and gaining her a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album. In interviews, she described how the tornado imagery in the lyrics came to her in a dream. There’s a great cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” that features six pianos playing simultaneously in Case’s Vermont barn, with a piano solo by the Band’s Garth Hudson. The album was also nominated for Best Recording Package for the cover artwork which featured Case, barefoot, brandishing a sword, crouched on the hood of her 1967 Mercury Cougar, ready to pounce.
Her latest release also has the most prosaic title: The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. Released in 2013, it’s arguably her most personal work, produced after a long period of depression brought on by the deaths of her grandmother and then both of her parents. She described her battle to The Guardian in 2013: “...it was physically disabling. My senses were dull, I lost my human skills. I became a little paranoid. I lost judge of character and my ability to laugh...I just didn’t really find anything funny. And normally I laugh at everything. So I couldn’t find any kind of joy. And that makes you a little panicky.”
The weird quirkiness that permeates much of her work and gives it strength is on display here as well, but there is also a directness in her lyrics that cuts straight to the bottom line. The album’s centerpiece is “Man”—a lightning bolt of a tune that rings like an anthem of empowerment, culminating in the lines:
I’m a man
That’s what you raised me to be
I’m not your identity crisis
This was planned
I’m a man
You’ll have to deal with me
My proxy is mine
You’ll deal with me directly
And if I’m dipshit drunk on the pink perfume
I am the man in the fucking moon
‘Cause you didn’t know what a man was
Until I showed you
The video promoting the song features Case surrounded by young teenagers dancing ecstatically in a deserted street scene, and going through some West Side Story-styled choreography. It’s a great balance to the in-your-face message and further infuses the song’s meaning with hope and optimism.
Her current tour, which kicked off Wednesday night in Chicago and swings through Detroit en route to Saturday night’s show at Babeville, is in support of Truckdriver, Gladiator, Mule, a career-spanning box set of her entire solo discography on black vinyl, all remastered from the original analog tape, along with an 80 page full color book designed and curated by Case herself.
Due to popular demand, Babeville has changed the configuration of the perfomance space, making it standing room only on the main floor of Asbury Hall, with balcony seating available on a first come, first serve basis.
Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Jennifer O’Connor opens the show.blog comments powered by Disqus
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