A modern Patsy Cline
by Erick Trickey
One morning Neko Case jumped out of my clock radio and woke me up with her song "Mood to Burn Bridges," hinting at the punk rocker she once was with angry tempo changes, channeling righteous rage at gossipy enemies into a country hoedown. So I bought her CD Furnace Room Lullaby, the only album I heard in 2000 that neared perfection. Imagine a modern Patsy Cline: a singer with a full, strong voice who knows how to rock but turns to country for an older, purer way to sing about love and despair and hard-won moments of grace.
A year and a half ago I drove to Ann Arbor to see Neko at the Blind Pig. I'd wondered what she'd look like in person, since the pictures on the CD cover made her an enigma: Neko dolled up as a vampy film-noir bad girl, Neko as the glassy-eyed murder ballad victim from the title song. I imagined she'd look beautiful, but she came on stage sleepy from a road-trip nap on the tour bus, with no makeup and a drowsy look around her eyes.
She pushed her voice to the edge on everything she sang, contorting her face to wring all she could out of the song, leaving behind any desire to keep composed and look pretty. It was like watching Janis Joplin sing, but where Janis screamed into the songs, trying to shred them, Neko reached for each note clearly, precisely, finding the ache and dignity within it. She and her band made their way through her tragic ballads, angry twangy rockers, and hopeful love songs most of them in 3/4 time, country waltzes you'd dance to with a lover just before saying good-bye.
It was a great Blind Pig night. That is, the encore came just before 2 a.m., with beer bottles rolling and clinking across the floor and the audience and band summoning a last bit of energy because we didn't want
the night to end. The last song Neko sang was "South Tacoma Way," an elegy that starts almost too personally, like a conversation among people we don't know, but grows into a moving memorial. She addresses the loved one she's mourning, and as she drives through their old hometown, "the world turns in slow motion," and she sees her loss in the landscape among "all the cross streets [that] bear your name."
Neko comes back to the Blind Pig on Thursday, May 9. I imagine she'll mix the Furnace Room Lullaby songs with some from her upcoming album, so the drama will lie in whether she can reach the same depths and achieve near perfection again.
[Originally published in May, 2002.]