Music: The Great Live North

Neko Case comes alive with The Tigers Have Spoken

Down-to-earth AltCountry diva Neko Case made her latest album a live one, because she mistakenly thought it would be quick and easy.

To say that Neko Case maintains a busy schedule is like calling Jimi Hendrix a serviceable guitarist. Case's burgeoning and much lauded Alt.Country solo career keeps her in the studio and on the road, her membership in the Corn Sisters is an interesting old-time music diversion and her involvement in the Pop majesty of Carl Newman's New Pornographers is another stellar entry on an already impressive résumé.

Case's unnervingly packed calendar might have inspired her to create her newest album, The Tigers Have Spoken, from the stage rather than the studio. It was an idea born of logic but not necessarily supported by reality.

"I thought it was going to be the easy and fast way to make a record ... no way," Case says from Tucson, Ariz., where she's working on her next studio album. "Making a live record is incredibly difficult and very expensive. You've got to have a giant recording truck outside with 2-inch tape. There's a lot of pressure. The hours in the studio were less, but the hours in the studio mixing were not less. It was an ordeal, but it was a fun ordeal."

Case set up a series of shows in Chicago and Toronto last spring with the express purpose of recording them for an album. In her mind, it was both a respite from her studio rigors and the realization of a longstanding desire to make a live record. Case enlisted old pals Travis and Dallas Good and their outfit The Sadies, along with a number of friends (steel pedal virtuoso Jon Rauhouse, fellow Alt.Country chanteuse Kelly Hogan and Jim & Jennie and the Pinetops), pressed "Record" and hit the stage.

The result is The Tigers Have Spoken, her fourth solo album and debut for Epitaph imprint Anti Records. It's a unique blending of a straight live album and an album of new material, comprised of energetically arranged covers (among them, Loretta Lynn's "Rated X," Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Soulful Shade of Blue," Freakwater's "Hex" and the Shangri-Las' "The Train From Kansas City") and Case's own compositions.

In lieu of their plan to write a full album, Case and The Sadies put their heads together to choose the set's eclectic range of cover songs. With the covers settled, she and the band wound up playing considerably more of Case's originals than are represented on Tigers, and while they played a full set for the shows, Tigers ultimately clocks in at a brisk 34 minutes.

"It's the length of a vinyl album," Case says. "That's the attention span I have — two-sided vinyl. No double-album, Led Zeppelin-y experience. Not that there's anything wrong with Led Zeppelin doing it, but if I were to make a double CD it would be self indulgent and crappy and I would be so burned out on it I wouldn't even enjoy it. Not like I'm a genius now, but that material seemed right and that seemed like the best parts of the show to us and we all decided together what we wanted."

Case was well acquainted with working out decisions with The Sadies. She had gigged with the Good brothers early in her career after relocating from Tacoma, Wash., to Vancouver, B.C. Her original intent was to attend art school in Vancouver (the drawings on Tigers are all by Case), but her drumming experience in Tacoma's Indie Rock scene led her toward Vancouver's scene as well. After stints with the Punk band Maow and Roots rockers The Weasles, she founded her own band, The Boyfriends.

In 1997, Case released her first solo album, The Virginian, a foray into straight Country with a well-balanced blend of covers and original songs. By this time, she was already ensconced in the New Pornographers and working with them regularly. She finished school the following year, moved back to Washington and assembled her second solo album, the hauntingly beautiful Furnace Room Lullaby, which garnered her a Bloodshot Records contract and tons of critical praise.

After another move to Chicago, Case released the Canadian Amp EP in 2001 and followed with the dark and smoky Blacklisted in 2002, cementing her reputation as a first class singer/songwriter and earning her an opening gig on Nick Cave's tour that year and a place on a several year end Top 10 lists.

While never one to look back, Case missed the early days with the Goods and was determined to do a project with them again. Schedules finally aligned for Tigers.

"We'd run into each other and we'd be like, 'We miss each other, let's make a record together," she says. "Finally I just called them up and they said, 'That would be so much fun!' And it was ridiculously fun."

Case continues work on her new album (she's hopeful for a September release date), a new Corn Sisters album could be imminent and the next New Pornographers album should drop in late summer. And although she's back in the studio with The Sadies for her new record, they won't be hitting the road together right away. But she knows their paths will cross again soon.

"The Sadies are very busy," Case says. "They just put out a fantastic album, so they're going to be busy on their own. I know that we'll tour again in the future. We can't stay away from each other. We're all so in love."

NEKO CASE performs Thursday at the Southgate House with Johnny Dowd.

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