House of Tudor

A Case of country blues

Neko Case-- a longtime Cramps devotee who left home at 15 -- began her musical career in the Pacific Northwest, picking up drumsticks for the power-pop trio Maow. But her 1997 solo album, The Virginian, left no doubt as to her Southern origins. A hearty collection of traditional country songs, including material by the Everly Brothers, Loretta Lynn, and Ernest Tubbs, The Virginiangave free rein to Case's natural alto and affected porch-swing twang. Her second album, 2000's Furnace Room Lullaby, found the husky-voiced chanteuse plumbing more personal trenches, with songs about busted romance and big business ruining small-town life, which she delivered with all the heartfelt zeal of a modern-day Blaze Starr. Blacklisted, Case's latest and finest effort, takes a big step back from brassy, cornfed nostalgia, revealing a more subtle and sophisticated comportment drawing its authority as much from late-night jazz as old-time country.

Blacklisted pits Case's burnished vocal chords against the minor-key contributions of Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino, Giant Sand's Howe Gelb, the Sadies' Dallas Good, and Will Oldham collaborator Kelly Hogan. Pump organ and ghostly pedal steel whisper through elegant tales of lost children, lost souls, lost love, lost ambition, and hard-won self-respect. On "Deep Red Bells," a song that approaches the spectral grace of Tarnation's "Gentle Creatures," Case offers eerie compassion for a youth who has vanished: "Does your soul cast about like an old paper bag?/ Past empty lots and early graves of those like you who've lost their way?" Later, on the equally haunting "Pretty Girls," she lodges a plaintive appeal to all those young ones whose family lives make them wish they could vanish. While Blacklisted nearly disposes of the big-voiced belters upon which Case had hitherto relied -- and which had detracted from the natural-born profundity of her voice -- she's still lured by the impression achieved through vocal gymnastics. This tension is perfectly illustrated by the two cover songs included on this album. With "Running Out of Fools," popularized by Aretha Franklin, Case fills the room, but with the more restrained "Look for Me (I'll Be Around)," popularized by Sarah Vaughan, she fills something much more difficult to reach. Neko Case performs on Tuesday, Nov. 12, at Bimbo's 365 Club with Jim & Jennie and the Pinetops opening at 8 p.m. Tickets are $14; call 474-0365.

 
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