Retro No More

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

It's not news that Nashville's current output lacks emotion, grit, soul, imagination -- the qualities that make for memorable music, no matter what the genre. Bleach-blond Twinkies in halter tops churn out generic pop with a hint of twang and the heartland embraces them as "real country." And maybe they are -- after all, we're not a nation of farmers and cowboys anymore; now we've got e-mail accounts and DVD players and video games, and Shania Twain's music fits right in with our mechanical, disposable, churn-and-burn ethos.

No wonder a generation weaned on punk rock is rediscovering deep-rooted country music, from the gritty, kick-up-your-heels Western swing of Bob Wills to the forlorn ballads of the Louvin Brothers. With an aesthetic forged by no-frills DIY action, latter-day C&W fans appreciate traditional country's blue-collar sanctification. The best-known link between these two proudly plainspoken subcultures is Bloodshot Records, self-described "home of insurgent country," which has had its best year yet, thanks to the solo records of former Whiskeytown front man Ryan Adams and gutsy singer-songwriter Neko Case.

The Virginia-born Case found her voice last year on her second solo full-length, Furnace Room Lullaby, an intense collection of porch-swing rave-ups and somber ballads. You can hear the echoes of abandoned downtown streets and dilapidated buildings and the pinch of empty pocketbooks in songs like "Thrice All American," her paean to Tacoma, Washington, where she grew up. Able backing comes from her ever-revolving band the Boyfriends (which this time out included folkie Ron Sexsmith, occasional Freakwater contributor Bob Egan, and Brian Connelly of Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet). Case's Bloodshot labelmate Kelly Hogan (whom Case has called her favorite singer in America) handles some of the backing vocals.

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

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Like Bloodshot, the 30-year-old Case has had a banner year, and not just because Furnace Room Lullaby made several year-end top-10 lists and sold nearly 20,000 copies -- a bonanza in indie-label terms. She also issued a live album with the Corn Sisters; her duo with another up-and-coming chanteuse, Carolyn Mark; and the Jayhawks tapped her as the opening act on their current West Coast tour. To top it off, Case was recently heard -- along with the legendary likes of Waylon Jennings, Lee Hazlewood and Loretta Lynn -- on Will Records' soundtrack to The Gift, for which she wrote and recorded the atmospheric "Pretty Girls." Will Records has even sprung for a video for "Furnace Room Lullaby," which also appears on the soundtrack.

Case and Mark recorded their loose, live record, The Other Women, in the back room of a venerable Seattle bar and restaurant called Hattie's Hat. Whereas Case's solo work brims with heartfelt explorations of grief, loneliness, resignation and redemption, the Corn Sisters, as their name suggests, don't take themselves too seriously. "Old-style country music had a lot to do with comedy," Case explains over the phone from one of her tour stops. "But I don't want it to sound like we're a comedy act, because there's nothing I hate more than comedians, probably. They're so not funny -- well, some of them are, but standup comedy is, like, the worst thing in the world."

So the Corn Sisters are not a joke -- but they do indulge themselves by covering everyone from Loretta Lynn and Lucinda Williams to Lieber & Stoller and Nick Lowe. And alongside harshly beautiful epics like Mark's "Matineed" -- a love song that twists into a violent fantasy that would make Eminem run scared -- are giggly tunes like "Corn on the Cob" ("It's the sweetest twist of fate/To find corn upon my plate/Won't you feed me some corn on the cob?"). The two singers even manage to crack each other up during a beautiful rendition of the eerie classic "Long Black Veil."

"Neko won't deny that Carolyn brings out her dorky side," says engineer Erik Flannigan, who recorded their Hattie's set. "The two of them together are hilariously corny -- no pun intended -- but they also take their arrangements seriously, and some of the songs on the record are truly inspired."

Case agrees that her Corn Sisters performances have a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants breeziness. "It's based a lot more on spontaneity and making it up on the spot," she says, comparing her shows with Mark to her solo sets. "Carolyn and I are really into not knowing what we're doing and just winging it. It's kind of a thrill."

"Neko certainly holds her own as a solo performer," opines Flannigan, "but I love the give-and-take she has with Carolyn. There was a lot of between-song banter at the show that we cut on the record, but I still think the spirit of the sets comes through."

Case has always been a fan of old-time music, even when she was singing and drumming in the band Maow, which was as far from traditional country as a punk-pop trio from Vancouver, B.C., could be. When she left Canada (and Maow), her songwriting just suited a twangy treatment. "Country music is the original punk rock to begin with, so it seems like a natural progression to me," she says. Yet despite the ease of her transition, Case hasn't left rock completely behind. She sang on the recent power-pop record Mass Romantic with yet another side project, the New Pornographers (among the five other members are Zumpano vocalist-guitarist Carl Newman and Limblifter vocalist-drummer Kurt Dahle).

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.

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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