Virginia-born Neko Case's first solo album, The Virginian, offers 12 tracks of straight-faced, irony-free sounds that don't seem to care whether they're alternative, hillbilly, or anything in between. As the drummer/vocalist for Vancouver's bad-girl punkabilly trio Maow, Case has parlayed her long-standing love of all things country into a repertoire that includes, among other things, a rip-roaring cover of Wanda Jackson's "Mean Mean Man," and a my-Hank-Williams-can-beat-up-your-Eric-Clapton ditty called "Very Missionary." The Virginian heads deeper into the genre, and though one or two songs here wouldn't sound entirely out of place on a "new country" playlist -- notably the polished, poppy "High on Cruel" -- on the whole, The Virginian settles into its own brand of aural Americana like an old gingham tablecloth.
The album has a bit of everything: There's twangy, swinging, slide-guitar country ("Timber"), sore-hearted-ballad country ("Somebody Led Me Away"), and goofy, "Achy Breaky"-dance country ("Honky Tonk Hiccups"). There's Everly Brothers country ("Bowling Green") and Ernest Tubbs country ("Thanks a Lot"). There's even Freddie Mercury country -- a category that, admittedly, may not have existed previously, if not for Case and company's cover of the Queen song "Misfire" -- a duet that has Case and one of Her Boyfriends, Matt Murphy, trading lines over a chugging guitar line and rapid-fire backbeat, and ultimately exploding into soaring, perfectly imperfect harmony. It's one of the album's several toe-curlingly beautiful moments.
The Virginian's original material uses tradition for a starting point, but Case can't hide her punk/garage past on tracks like the whooping-and-hollering rockabilly rave-up "Karoline," which has the same spit-in-your-drink pissiness that characterizes Maow. Then again, some of these tunes are downright mournful: Case loops her silvery lasso of a voice around the gospel-tinged title track, a downbeat tale of a girl who "fell away from the side of the Lord." The vocal sob on that song would make George Jones himself snap to attention.
Despite the stylistic branch-swinging on The Virginian, there's a truly cohesive feel that comes not only from Case's obvious affection for her material, but also from Her Boyfriends, the group of 13 musicians who back her up with various combinations and capacities. Among the Boyfriends are bluegrass musicians, lap-steel supremos, and Canadian indie luminaries from wise-ass bands like the Smugglers and Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, all of whom see to it that not a moment is wasted on instrumental flab, indulgent backbeats, or overbearing harmony. Honest and honestly enjoyable, Neko Case's new album might not cut through contemporary country's Velveeta, but it does show that the heart of country still beats in The Virginian, if not Nashville.