Deep Read-Headed Belle

“It’s a little more contemplative than the last record. It wasn’t so much of a showcase for different songs as a more unified idea… It’s a little more novel-like.”


As a given name, Neko tantalizes with its apparent singularity. It strains the imagination to conceive of meeting a woman who answers to so exotic a handle; indeed, Neko goes unlisted even in references like Bruce Lansky’s 35,000+ Baby Names, which proceeds straight from Nekeisha (American, “an alternate form of Nakeisha”) to Nelia (Spanish, “yellow”).

Regarding singer-songwriter Neko Case, of course, that singular name attaches to a singular talent, as patrons of Off Broadway the frigid first Friday in February can affirm. That night, the auburn-haired beauty (accompanied by mad genius Jon Rauhouse on pedal steel and Tom V. Ray on upright bass) again visited St. Louis, whose residents greeted her in force. In fact, two longtime local scenesters in attendance (one a musician, the other a music critic unaffiliated with Playback St. Louis) later independently expressed surprise at just how crowded the venue grew that Friday—those who didn’t arrive P.D.Q. were S.O.L. because the show was S.R.O.

At the time, Case was touring in support of her third full-length solo CD, Blacklisted, released in the U.S. last August by Bloodshot Records. Not coincidentally, roughly a week before, she’d consented to a telephone interview from Chicago (which she currently calls home, having previously lived everywhere from Alexandria, Virginia, to Vancouver to Tacoma).

Case—who had recently returned from touring Europe, to which she plans to return later this spring—had this to say about her latest release, which Harp magazine just proclaimed the “CD of the Year” on the strength of such tracks as “Deep Red Bells” and “I Wish I Was the Moon”: “It’s a little more contemplative than the last record. It wasn’t so much of a showcase for different songs as a more unified idea… It’s a little more novel-like.”

By “the last record,” Case meant Furnace Room Lullaby, her 2000 stunner. Strictly speaking, though, Blacklisted was immediately preceded by Canadian Amp, a 2001 EP not available at most retailers but, happily, for sale at the Off Broadway performance. On the subject of that eight-song disc, which was recorded in her own kitchen, she stated, “I wanted to learn how to record myself so that I would have more vocabulary, so that I could better communicate my ideas with the people that I’ve been working with. They’ve been improving their skills, so I felt like I should be improving mine.”

The preceding might tempt unwary readers to regard Case as a musical Girl Scout, a temptation they should resist. Neko (to echo the nominal opening to this profile) means “cat” in Japanese, and this kitten can flash first-class claws. Nowhere during the interview did that become clearer than at a chance reference to Shania Twain. “I don’t understand how somebody could not realize how obvious it is that they hate what they’re doing,” Case remarked of the reigning queen of commercial country music. “Does she think we’re that stupid, that we don’t know that she hates what she’s doing?” Presumably at no time during her upcoming return to Europe will Case take tea at Chateau de Sully, Twain’s 100-room Swiss castle.

The petite redhead spoke far more highly of country’s true royalty than of the genre’s current usurpers. Awhile ago, for instance, she shared a bill with her idol, Loretta Lynn, but abstained from introducing herself. “There were people crawlin’ all over that woman. I thought the nicest thing I could do as someone who really adored her and as a longtime fan…was just to leave her alone.” With an embarrassed laugh, Case added, “So I didn’t bother her.” An offhand comment by her interlocutor also prompted her to praise another titan of modern country, Johnny Cash, who’s still making music despite a debilitating disorder of the central nervous system. “He’s so great because he’s not giving up,” she said. “So many people would just put themselves to bed. He’s the most amazing person—that guy has so much soul. He’s one of the people that I would really love to meet.”

Self-evidently, Case has invested a good deal of herself in country music, a fact emphasized by a subsequent meditation on a man about whom, unexpectedly, she confessed, “I look a lot to his work for inspiration”: the late Roger Miller. “There’s just something so compelling about him,” stated Case. “It’s weird, because he’s mostly known for his novelty songs, which I’m not really a fan of necessarily. I think they’re really clever, and he does them really well. The musicality of them is fantastic. But the fact that I know that he can write the most heartbreaking, sad love songs makes me just go, ‘I want to hear those.’”

Regarding the Texas troubadour behind tunes like “Dang Me” and “Chug-a-Lug,” Case continued: “He seems like this guy who’s such a genius, but maybe he was brought up to be really modest or something, because he can never do it totally straight. Like even in ‘Lock, Stock and Teardrops,’ where he’s singing the word call and pronouncing it caulk, like he just can’t help himself. It’s like he’s making some kind of Afghan carpet, where he has to make one stitch imperfect.” Devotees of contemporary commercial country music, it almost goes without saying, will scarcely recognize Miller’s name, let alone respect Case’s admiration for his work. To fans of Rascal Flatts, other commentary from her may seem even more opaque: “My first favorite song was ‘Rocky Top’ by the Osborne Brothers, and I think, as a kid, it was very appealing, very singsongy… And it also has the line ‘wild as a mink but sweet as soda pop.’ I loved that so much. That was the coolest thing ever, and I thought, ‘I’m gonna grow up and be wild as a mink and sweet as soda pop.’”

Devotees of true country music, it also almost goes without saying, will breathe a grateful amen to that last sentiment, for in that particular aspiration, musically and otherwise, Case surely succeeded.

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