Fist City

Taking inspiration from Loretta, Patsy and Dolly, Neko Case furthers her dark country muse with Furnace Room Lullaby

Case bristles when it's suggested that her music could be lumped under the alternative country banner -- the place where so many alienated from current mainstream twang have found refuge.

"The country tradition is so much longer than new country, I don't think I have to call it something different just because there's some kind of crappy, AM radio country music going on right now, making all the money," she says. "I don't like to call it alternative country because it seems like I'm kind of copping out. But when I grew up, I listened to people like Loretta Lynn and saw them on the Opry and I loved all that stuff, and that at the time was mainstream. So, in a sense, I'm still into that mainstream country."

Case follows in another country tradition, the strong woman. If she's going to stand by her man, it's got to be on her terms. Despite its conservative image, country has been the one genre -- aside from, perhaps, R&B -- where women have been able to speak their piece. Even mainstream moneymakers like the Dixie Chicks can get away with murder, as on their recent Grammy Award-winning "Goodbye Earl." Case's unstated manifesto on Lullaby seems to be, "People may fuck me over, but they aren't going to get the best of me."

Country noir: Singer Neko Case  --  taking a trip down the "Lost Highway."
Erica Henderson
Country noir: Singer Neko Case -- taking a trip down the "Lost Highway."

"Any old place is a good place for women to have their say. I suppose historically country music probably is the best place, even though it seems to have a reputation for being the opposite," she says.

But in her own work, Case also benefits from an art school aesthetic and its open-mindedness toward originality. She's genuinely the creative type, involved in printmaking, sculpture, electrical work and photography. The semi-gothic overtones of the album's design may have been her idea of a goof, but it springs from a twisted side. Case also builds toys that can only be described by her:

"I have this rabbit, and the whole idea was, kind of like, traps set for children," she says, laughing. "But they are made from the point of view from what the child would imagine -- like the monster under the bed or something. So it's a toy rabbit, but it's sewn together really badly and it's made of green vinyl alligator skin, and when you pick it up it makes a horrible shrieking noise. It's very accessible to people because you can totally understand kids being afraid of the closet or what's under the bed."

But put aside any notions that Case is just some freaky eccentric. She's a tough gal, too. The video for The Virginian's "Timber" featured Case busting up a bar with a baseball bat and guitar because the crowd wasn't paying attention to her performance. It mirrored a real-life incident that happened when she was touring with "cute" indie popsters Cub and received an unwanted type of attention.

"Cub was a sweet indie rock girl band and they were on tour with hard-rockin' boy bands -- and young men tend to get a little stupid sometimes," she diplomatically recounts. "I can put up with the insults, but some guy called me a whore and I'm like, 'That's it.' So I went up to him and I said, 'You know what, just because you don't like the band doesn't mean you can call me a whore, 'cause that's really insulting.' He said something like, 'I don't care, blah, blah, blah.' [That] made me madder, so I socked him. I didn't knock him unconscious, but I did punch him in the face."

Neko Case and Her Boyfriends are scheduled to perform on Saturday, March 11, at the Arizona Roadhouse and Brewery in Tempe, with Sleepwalker. Showtime is 9 p.m.

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