Let's get this out of the way: Rolling Stonesays she's country. Salon.com says she's not. Most other reviewers say she's altcountry. Neko Case says, "I don't want to have to kowtow to the fact that the name 'country' has been taken away from the kind of music it used to be and given to something shitty. I like to think that I play country music, not a different kind, but the actual kind. I'm not alternative at all." The fact is, like Patsy, Hank, and Elvis before her, it just doesn't matter. She's too good. Anyone who wants to discuss it further needs to go die.
Blacklisted, Case's third solo effort, proves that she's a genius -- no other word will do. Through her first two albums -- the super-countrified The Virginian and the unclassifiable Furnace Room Lullaby -- a lot of people thought she was just a weird girl with a really good voice. This release, without taking away either of those impressions, has knocked listeners upside the head, left them head over heels in love. It's a Johnny Cash-grade album, the work of an artist with a perfect vision and, of course, that voice: the booming, pitch-perfect, sweet-and-sour snarl that likes to drive too fast and spit gravel. We first fell for it in the early '90s, when Case revamped Wanda Jackson's "Mean Mean Man" by cranking it up to double time with her punk band Maow.
Blacklisted, apparently not a reference to the time she got kicked out of the Grand Ole Opry for taking her shirt off, is drop-dead gorgeous, the tone mostly bleak by way of intelligent and rockin'. Case is backed up as usual by Her Boyfriends, a crack team of instrumental superspies from bands like Calexico, the Sadies, and Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, as well as rock-'em-sock-'em vocalists Kelly Hogan and Mary Margaret O'Hara.
Wednesday, May 21, at 8 p.m.
Admission is $15
"Fluorescent lights engage/ Like birds frying on a wire," the opening lines to "Things That Scare Me," let listeners know right away to sit down and pay attention -- that guitar twanging does not mean there are dumb country music themes ahead. Case's lyrical complexity holds throughout the album, notably in "Deep Red Bells," a song about loneliness and death on the interstate: "It looks a lot like engine oil/ And tastes like being poor and small/ And Popsicles in summer." Other highlights include the noir film-soundtrack-ready "Look for Me (I'll Be Around)," one of two covers, and the upbeat "Stinging Velvet." And "Pretty Girls." And "Lady Pilot." And all the other songs.
The album doesn't succeed merely because of the astonishing vox, the undreamed-of team players, and the blue-ribbon lyrics: Turns out that Case has, in the last couple of years, taught herself to play guitar. It's this ability, apparently, that helped her write most of the songs, but she also credits her new skill with improving her phrasing. And on Blacklisted, it's those complicated, daredevil vocal choices that really take the whole package into addictive territory. An artist without an art form is dangerous, they say. Now that this artist has dug deeper into her form, she's even more so.