Retro No More

Singer-songwriter Neko Case and her musical pals bring country music out of the curio cabinet

Three years in the making, the New Pornographers' happy-go-lucky record takes giddy harmonies on a hell-bent ride as melodic saxophones and all kinds of keyboards hang out in the sidecar. Case's ringing voice rounds out dysfunctional anthems like the title track and the half-silly, half-sad "The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism." "It's like a huge rock band -- it's kind of new wave, too," Case enthuses. "It's a great balance between being a really kick-ass rock band but not being macho, which I appreciate."

Though country music is ancient in comparison, power pop has its own legacy, from the Raspberries and Big Star to Cheap Trick to Guided by Voices. Like Case's best solo work, Mass Romantic sounds timeless -- it could have been recorded any time in the past 30 years. So it is with most of Case's Bloodshot labelmates -- the Waco Brothers, Robbie Fulks, the Old 97's. They may have grown up in the city (or in the case of Waco Brother Jon Langford, Wales), but they hark back to America's agrarian past.

Neko Case: A honky-tonk angel for the 21st century.
Neko Case: A honky-tonk angel for the 21st century.

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Amid these twangy troubadours and rollicking rebels, however, honky-tonk angels are surprisingly few and far between. Nashville's past is full of strong female voices -- from Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline to Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette -- but they're in short supply in the alt-country arena. When women do appear, they're generally heavy-lidded sex-bomb caricatures straight out of a tattoo flash book. "We're not about that at all," Case says of her work solo and with Mark. "And our humor certainly isn't old-style humor -- it's kind of sick, probably." Even singer-songwriters aiming for realism -- such as Gillian Welch, who creates lovely Dust Bowl period-pieces -- can't shake an aura of otherworldliness. Country could use a few female artists bringing it out of the curio cabinet and into real time, and Case and her pals may be the ones for the job.

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