It says something about Neko Case's footprint in the zeitgeist that she's been celebrated by punk rock champion and po-mo critic Greil Marcus ("There's no sound richer than hers abroad in the land today") and been invited to play Garrison Keillor's suddenly-less-corny A Prairie Home Companion.
And after the release last spring of another critically acclaimed record, Middle Cyclone, Case's career arc shows no sign of waning -- as her gig at the 1,300-seat Knight Theater on Nov. 18 would suggest. But the comely, raven-haired Case is no overnight sensation and has traveled a long road that winds far beyond even her musical beginnings in the all-girls punk band Maow during the early '90s.
Her solo career began its steady ascent at the height of the late '90s alt-country frenzy, and back then owed much to the traditional country and western she was enamored with. But her diverse songwriting skills quickly transcended simplistic categorization. Other singers in the alt-country heyday may have been content aping classic country or adding ironic twists to the form, but Case took its blend of melancholy and resilience and transplanted it squarely in the modern era.
Born in Virginia in 1970 into a peripatetic family, Case wound up in Tacoma after leaving home at the age of 15. After Maow, she re-emerged in 1997 with her debut, The Virginian, billed as Neko Case & Her Boyfriends. It was a mix of originals and classic country covers perfectly suited for her rich, powerful vibrato, including Loretta Lynn's put-upon classic, "Somebody Led Me Away" and the Everly Brothers' "Bowling Green" (on which she duets with future New Pornographers' band mate Carl Newman). But it was covers of Scott Walker's "Duchess" and Ernest Tubb's "Thanks a Lot" that showed off her skills as an interpreter. She brought brass to the former, and injected the latter with a woman's clear-eyed regret and a flash of her sharp, sarcastic humor. The originals, too, highlighted Case's strong suit -- the ability to appear both vulnerable and indomitable -- and made her voice and message inseparable.
Despite its flaws, Case hit a note with The Virginian, one she realized more fully with her next record, 2000's Furnace Room Lullaby. On it, Case yanked country and western into the modern era, making a mockery of mainstream Nashville's pointless forays into pop and rock. From its eye-popping album art -- on the front, Case prone on a filthy cement floor, perhaps the victim of an assault; on the back, Case rifling through an unconscious man's wallet in a dingy restroom -- to the host of hot-shot musicians offering support (including her one-time touring band, the Sadies), the record showcased Case's growing vocal talents, modulating between ethereal falsetto and wall-rattling bellows. The songs were still familiarly twangy, but in the narratives you could hear the younger Case's wanderings running like connective tissue -- a theme she'd explore in greater detail with each subsequent release.
After the home-recorded, covers-friendly Canadian Amp EP in 2001, Case released Blacklisted in 2002, her Great Leap Forward. If she acknowledged internal conflicts on Furnace Room Lullaby, on Blacklisted she dug around in the wounds like a surgeon. The result was a record primal in its emotions, but much more musically nuanced and lyrically sophisticated. The title of the opening track -- "Things That Scare Me" -- stood as an obvious road sign for the images of lonely highways, vacant homes and graveyards that littered the narratives like snapshots from a car headed nowhere and anywhere. A sense of impending danger and unspecified threats permeated the music like the Brothers Grimm's foreboding dream-stories. The only sign of the self-assured woman or playful ingénue from her first two records was the record's two cover versions, a transcendent, twanged-up take on "Look for Me (I'll Be Around)," and the girl groups' treatment of "Runnin' Out of Fools."
Cast mostly in sparse, late-night arrangements that touched as much on torch jazz, folk and indie rock accents as country, the songs reflected Case's growth as a writer but still threw the spotlight on her tremendous singing range. She sounds as thunderous on the chorus of "Deep Red Bells" as a carillon in full-peal, and as delicate as china on the loneliness lament, "I Wish I Was the Moon." In addition to some of the usual suspects like the Sadies, Kelly Hogan and pedal steel virtuoso Jon Rauhouse, Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino helped Case sculpt reverb-rich soundscapes as mysterious and wide open as her imagery and narratives.
After Blacklisted's critical buzz, Case signed with the label Anti-, home to iconoclasts and fellow signature voices like Tom Waits, Joe Henry and Nick Cave. After Anti- quickly put out The Tigers Have Spoken, a strong hodge-podge of live cuts, originals and covers, Case delivered 2006's luminous Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Joining the Sadies, Hogan and the Calexico brain trust this time were Giant Sand's Howe Gelb, The Band's Garth Hudson and Dexter Romweber, among a host of other luminaries. The ensemble fashioned even more haunting backdrops for Case, who seemed to be performing a form of regression therapy. If Blacklisted sought to make sense of her transient past, Fox Confessor roots around in the primal childhood traumas that colored everything after: "The most tender place in my heart is for strangers/I know it's unkind but my own blood is much too dangerous," she sang on the Sadies-penned "Hold On, Hold On."
Fox Confessor's songs were like nursery rhymes for adults filtered through a wary woman's sensibilities. Most of the song structures were deconstructed, to a point, but mostly re-imagined as expressionist pieces where mood, music and narrative were indistinguishable. Moving even further from traditional verse-verse-chorus formulas, the songs seem instead to rise heavenward mainly through the power of Case's voice and narrative imagination.
If she got in touch with her youngest self on Fox Confessor, she's gone full feral with Middle Cyclone. The album -- written in consort with Paul Rigby and featuring many of the usual suspects -- constantly courts the elemental: in the title metaphor; in the cover art featuring an on-the-hunt Case atop her beloved '60s muscle car (a Cougar, of course); and in no-doubt titles like "I'm an Animal" and the cover of Sparks' "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Nature." By now, Case's vocals have become their own force of nature -- though her real skill lies in bringing The Voice to heel in service of each song. That's a talent that shows no signs of diminishing either.
Neko Case plays Knight Theater on Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. Deer Tick opens. Tickets range from $25.50 to $29.50.