Neko Case pioneered her own haunting strain of alt-country noir. There was a time, not so long ago, when music that injected roots sounds into rock-and-roll was more underground than underground. This was in the days when grunge and pop-punk were still, if on the wane, the behemoths of alternative sounds -- before gentle troubadours like Conor Oberst, Sufjan Stevens and Rilo Kiley's folky, rural take on pop music started garnering magazine covers and spots on the charts. In the late '90s, adding the whine of pedal steel or the lush spookiness of southern Gothic to a record was rare and eccentric. There was a small, curious cowpunk scene starting to flourish on the margins, ruled by acts like the early Wilco, but none of that came close to even sniffing around the mainstream. These days, acts like the bands mentioned above mine Americana for all the Delta twang and Appalachian creepiness they can find, but in 1997 --Êwhen Tacoma, Wash., native Neko Case released her first, darkly countrified album The Virginian, the sound was as unusual as a haint drifting out of the swamp.
Pale-skinned and delicately pretty with flowing red hair, Case looks the part of the doomed belle. She has the look you picture for the heroines of the rural horror stories that artists like Nick Cave love so much. The girl who's buried in a shallow grave behind the sharecropper's cabin, or whose body drifts whitely through dark water, her long hair tangling with weeds. These are the kind of images her music conjures, hypnotic and spooky; even her rare upbeat numbers come across, somehow, with a dissonant tinge of sadness.
Case worked her way slowly toward the patented country noir that's now her signature. The Virginian was recorded as Neko Case and her Boyfriends, a band that at different times included alt-country stars like Jon Rauhouse, Waco Brothers member Tom Ray and hard-rock bluegrass pioneer Bill Anderson with much more straight country feel to it and, compared to her later, eerier works, much more cheer. Half the album was composed of originals she wrote with the band, when she was not yet proficient on guitar. The rest were classic country covers like Ernest Tubb's "Thanks A Lot" and Loretta Lynn's "Somebody Led Me Away." The sound was raw and rollicking honky-tonk, a keen contemporary take on old-school country, but Case's voice -- even on upbeat numbers -- always hinted at a darker side to things. Her second album, Furnace Room Lullaby, explored that side more deeply -- the cover even featured a color-saturated shot of Case sprawled on asphalt like a murder victim, her head at an odd angle and her expression blank, in homage (she's said) to the famous crime scene photographer Weegee. On Furnace Room Lullaby, the shadows started to lengthen, with a minor-key vocal purposefully marring a track that could have been purely upbeat or a note held a little too long and trailing off forebodingly, but it was on her third release, Blacklisted, that Neko's style took full form. She'd mastered the six-string by then, and wrote all the songs on the album except for torchy, melancholic covers of Sarah Vaughn's "Look For Me (I'll Be Around)" and Aretha Franklin's "Running Out Of Fools." (It's songs like the latter that really illustrate the power of a well-done cover; Elvis Costello covered it too, with trademark snark and venom that drew out the song's potential bitterness.) Blacklisted was recorded in Arizona with members of the deconstructionist southwestern collective Calexico and Giant Sand, and their influence is heard in the album's cryptic, dreamy tone, although it's definitely Neko's stamp that makes that dream a fever nightmare. Like a David Lynch film, images with startling resonance float through the songs and slip away again, receding under dark waters and leaving the listener with a sense of unease. It turns out that one of the tracks, the swirling "Deep Red Bells" is obtusely about the victims of the Green River Killer, who was at large in the Pacific Northwest when Case was young. It seems that a talent for sharing your demons as a songwriter can be even more compelling and seductive than one for sharing joy.
Case has been sniffed at purposefully more than a few times by the major labels, but aside from a jump between the seminal alt-country imprint Bloodshot Records and her current home, Mint Records -- also the American home of Nick Cave and Tom Waits -- she's decided to stay put. Aside from taking time out from the dark places to occasionally record and play with the Canadian powerpop outfit the New Pornographers, she's delved ever deeper into her curio cabinet of dark things. Her latest, 2006's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, which included guest spots from Garth Hudson and Dexter Romweber, fused elements of soul, gospel and vintage pop to create yet another winsome and unsettling package.