Case's 'Tigers' captures the power of her live shows

Her twangy alt-country has a taste of garage punk

Music : In concert, CDs

February 10, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison | By Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Even on the phone, Neko Case talks as if she's on stage: her voice projected and animated. The alternative pop-country artist, whose latest release is the energetic live set The Tigers Have Spoken, stops at Rams Head Live Tuesday night. Case, an Alexandria, Va., native, is calling from Chicago, her home for the past five years.

"It's kind of a crossroads, a friendly affordable version of New York," she says of the city that nurtured such greats as Muddy Waters, Curtis Mayfield, the Staple Singers.

"There are all types of music that mixes together, kind of incestuous, but in a good way," Case says, giggling.

It was in Chicago that she flowered as an artist. But her darkly beautiful sound had already started to gel before the singer relocated to the Windy City, where alternative country music has thrived for years now. With such independent releases as The Virginian, her debut from 1997, Furnace Room Lullaby from 2000 and Blacklisted from 2002, Case has amassed a sizable national following, becoming something of a critic's darling along the way.

The Tigers Have Spoken captures the vibrancy and bright spontaneity of her live shows.

"Live albums can be a rip-off," says Case, who's 33. "A lot of live albums are full with songs you already have, or they're enhanced in the studio with re-recorded vocals. I wanted [my live album] to be something that happened in front of the audience, a real live album. I was influenced by those live Ike and Tina records. Those were so energetic. Tina sang hard; you could hear her breathing in the mike."

Tigers, which features two refreshed originals and five covers, was recorded while Case was on the road last spring. The songs were culled from performances at three different venues: Schubas in Chicago, Lee's Place and the Matador in Toronto. She was backed by the Canadian band the Sadies, whose twangy mix combines traditional country with shades of garage punk. But Case insists that the record isn't a stopgap release while fans wait around for her next studio album, which is due out in the spring.

"We wanted this record to have more upbeat stuff," says the artist, who's known for crooning intimate, downcast ballads. "The fans wanted more of that."

From the first song (the rollicking "If You Knew") to the last (the spirited "Wayfaring Stranger"), the intensity never dips on Tigers -- a powerful but short album that clocks in at a little over 34 minutes.

"It was really a good exercise of letting go of being a control freak," Case says. "In the studio, I'm totally a control freak, a Virgo, you know. I learned a lot about the art of compression on this record. It's all about carefully balancing everything with the overall sound."

The selections on Tigers are well-balanced. Case enlivens Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Soulful Shade of Blue," the Shangri-Las' "Train From Kansas City" and Loretta Lynn's "Rated X."

"We've been playing the Loretta song for years," the singer-songwriter says. "Her songs are so gratifying and not all Afterschool Special-like. She's tough, always tells it like it is."

Case is tight-lipped about her studio album but says she's stretching more on it.

"I feel terrified at this point in my career," she says. "There's this point where you get so immersed in your art that you wonder if what you're doing is any good. How does this sound? Are these the right lyrics? It's a humiliating terror I feel. But it's good. It keeps me honest."

Check out Neko Case at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place, Tuesday night at 9. Tickets are $16.50. For more information, visit www.ramsheadlive.com.

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