It is nearly impossible to resist the voice of Neko Case. The flame-haired beauty is blessed with a full-throated, powerful croon that channels Patsy Cline through a Southern Gothic prism; her vocals are among the most evocative in pop. But the last time Case had a gig in Oklahoma City, she found herself surprisingly silenced.
The venue’s sound system was on the fritz. It was the only time in Case’s career that she had to cancel a show because of a faltering system.
“The audience waiting to see the show was so nice about it, I felt terrible,” she said, with a laugh. “But they were cool, and so we promised that when we came back to Oklahoma City, we would do a charity show.”
She keeps her promise Friday night with a 7 p.m. performance at the Diamond Ballroom. A portion of the proceeds will go to the American Indian College Fund.
It is a curious time for a concert tour. Case’s last record, the critically acclaimed “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood,” was released two years ago, and her next disc isn’t due until March 2009. But the singer is nothing if not resolutely unconventional. She rarely takes the road well-traveled.
Case in point: “Fox Confessor.” After earning her bona fides in alt-country as well as for her work with indie rock’s The New Pornographers, the 38-year-old singer sailed toward more eclectic horizons. Oblique and haunting, the album boasts the fragmented imagery and jagged emotions of a fever dream. Case’s reverb-drenched soprano takes listeners on a journey through psychologically murky waters ” jealousy, loneliness, madness, death.
And yet, miraculously, musical mastery keeps it from sinking into despair. From the cascading piano of “Margaret vs. Pauline” (courtesy The Band’s Garth Hudson) to the reverent a cappella that opens the gospel-tinged “John Saw That Number,” the album wrings aching beauty from decidedly downbeat subject matter.
Not that you can always tell what exactly she is singing about. Eschewing the typical verse-chorus-verse structure, Case’s lyrics tend toward the elliptical. She values memorable phrases and images above a clean linear narrative. Sample lyrics from “Fox Confessor”‘s title track: “Clouds hang on these curves like me / And I kneel to the wheel / Of the fox confessor on splendid heels / And he shames from my seat / And on my guilty feet / I follow him in retreat.” The experience is akin to glimpsing brilliant shafts of light through the most enveloping of fogs.
Case said she wants listeners to take an active role in the musical experience.
“If you leave people gaps to fill in themselves, they make the songs more about themselves and create a closer bond with them,” she said.”The thing about making up stories is when you first get the idea, they kind of come out of nowhere and it’s like somebody telling you a story. Your brain is creating something on its own. It’s like it’s its own being. It’s there to entertain you “¦ which is kind of awesome.”
“Fox Confessor,” which took more than two years to record, is deeply informed by the singer/songwriter’s interest in the open-ended ambiguities of Eastern European folklore, particularly Ukrainian fairy tales.
“I didn’t realize I was so obsessed with Ukrainian fairy tales making the last record until I was about halfway through,” she said. “I realized I was fascinated with how fairy tales came to be in the first place, and how a regular, everyday occurrence could be told enough times by people who had a bit of flair at storytelling so that they actually became ingrained in people’s consciousness over the generations.”
She partly attributes the interest to her mother’s Ukrainian ancestry.
“The way my family told stories was very much a fairy-tale sort of thing,” she said. “They would tell stories about things, and they would leave certain things out, or they would let you feel there was an air of mysticism rather than making it super-concrete. The stories stick with you more. They’re a little more haunting that way.”
Similarly, the singer rejects tidy musical classifications. The onetime art student initially gravitated toward the punk movement and played drums in a succession of all-girl bands, but she ended up disillusioned with the punk scene.
“It was very macho,” Case said. “If it wasn’t just singing about dumb stuff, it was very politically dogmatic ” but even that’s too complex. It was people recycling, ‘Government bad, government bad.'”
She immersed herself in country. Loretta Lynn songs, Case contends, “are so much more punk rock than anything punk rock ever tried to do.” Case’s 1997 solo debut, “The Virginian,” earned rave reviews, but successive albums proved more daring and moody, what one critic dubbed “country noir.” Soon, she began weaving in elements of folk and even gospel ” although she says she is not religious at all.
“A lot of Southern Baptist gospel music started out as slave songs. They were protest songs,” she said. “They weren’t just about the Lord Jesus Christ, Our Savior. They were about personal redemption and perseverance and surviving. They transcend religion.
“It’s not that I’m anti-religion. I’m not. There are plenty of religious people who do great things and help people, but it’s just not for me. I don’t find any solace in it.”
With so many music aficionados finding solace in her music, it begs the question: What gives Neko Case solace?
“Nature and creative pursuits. Reading and seeing great movies and being with people I love. Traveling. My dogs and cats. I like to eat a lot,” she said. “I’m pretty simple. I don’t need much.” “Phil Bacharach