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Neko Case at the Cradle

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Patsy Cline is alive. Or at least her most identifiable part: Cline’s sultry, soulful moan lives on in Neko Case’s voice.

It’s fine-tuned and a bit more urban, but it still carries enough twang to turn a country boy’s head. The two singers also share an interest in getting crazy and falling to pieces over matters of the heart. But Case’s approach to romance is a bit more complex than Cline’s.

On her latest album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Case’s stark tales of heartbreak, madness and old-time religion seem to have been culled from clippings of News of the Weird. Part Faulkner, part Stephen King, the lyrics can be impenetrable, they’re so arty that one longs for footnotes or perhaps a Cliffs Notes to help decipher them. This is deep, dark stuff—twisted fairy tales from her Ukrainian heritage mixed with her bitter observations on relationships.

Decoding some of Case’s lyrics may be as difficult as finding a label for the music she makes. That alt-country tag still pops up in reviews, but Case will let you know pretty damn quick she’s not down with that.

“That’s something you’d have to ask the journalists, ’cause I sure didn’t put it on there,” Case said by phone from the road. “I’m just a singer.”

Born in Alexandria, Va., Case inherited a love of vintage country music from her grandmother. Moving to Tacoma, Wash. when she was 13 shook up her taste in music. She absorbed gospel music, especially Bessie Griffin’s passionate delivery. Case says Griffin and her Gospel Pearls’ album Swing Down Sweet Chariot made her want to be a singer.

“But I became a teenager and I wasn’t hearing anything I wanted to hear on the radio, so I got turned on to other things,” Case says. By 17, she was playing drums in a local punk band. She enrolled in art and design school in Vancouver, Canada to pursue an interest in photography, eventually joining all-girl punk band Maow.

Country was still a passion for Case, though. She briefly joined the country rock outfit the Weasles, but then assembled her own group, Neko and the Boyfriends, putting out The Virginian, her homage to old school country, in 1997.

Furnace Room Lullaby, a collection of Case originals in the torch-and-twang tradition, was released in 2000, earning her comparisons to k.d. lang. But her sound was more like that of young Tanya Tucker, the country star. And while Case may like that genre, she feels no compulsion to take her act to Nashville and give them a taste of her real thing.

“I’m pretty happy in Chicago,” she says. “I don’t have a problem with Nashville. They don’t vex my existence. I just like to play country music.”

The country flavor was almost obliterated on 2002’s dark Blacklisted, Case’s sophisticated vocals falling more in line with torchy jazz and blues. For Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, the Cline-meets-Tucker vocal persona is all dressed up for a late-night smoky jazz club or an upscale blues joint, elegance dripping from every syllable. It’s a mix of jangly pop (“Hold On, Hold On”), folk (“A Widow’s Toast”), garage-y rock (“That Teenage Feeling’) and rockin’ country gospel (“John Saw That Number”). Case soars above it all, turning in what may well be the performance of a lifetime.

But let’s hope it isn’t: Stuff this good only leaves you wanting more of the same.

Neko Case plays the Cat’s Cradle Wednesday, April 12 and Thursday, April 13 at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $17-19.

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