Neko Case has said that, if she were a contemporary of Rosemary Clooney or Patsy Cline, her abilities wouldn't take her farther than singing in some bar for $5 a night.
The lady needs to give herself a little more credit. Case's voice -- a force she has likened to "breathing through a fire hose" -- is magnetic. Even many who would normally balk at anything labeled alt-country concede its unique power. "I've never really listened to my voice and gone, 'That is a quality instrument,'" she told The New Yorker earlier this year. "It's more like, OK, that's good and fucking loud. I'm kind of the horn section of any band I'm in."
Born in Virginia, Case spent much of her life in Washington state and Canada; she's frequently referred to as an honorary Canadian for her work with the Vancouver power-pop group The New Pornographers and Toronto country-rockers The Sadies. She started out playing drums in punk bands like Maow and Cub, and first experimented with country rock with the band The Weasels. Case's first solo record, 1997's The Virginian, is straight-shootin' country, and features her interpretations of Everly Brothers and Ernest Tubb songs.
From there, Case has become progressively better, and weirder. On her 2000 release, Furnace Room Lullaby, she began exploring darker subjects, developing a kind of twangy noir. She refined that sound on her next record, Blacklisted, which has a Twin Peaks-like spookiness -- complete with songs about sinister birds and young girls being murdered on the highway.
Case's songs often concern "man vs. nature"-style violence and danger, and her latest record, Middle Cyclone, takes that to the extreme. The title track is a violent love song -- told from the perspective of a tornado. And in the record's jangly first single, "People Got a Lot of Nerve," Case casts herself as several different wild animals, wondering why anyone would be surprised that a killer whale would "pin you down to the bottom of the tank" and take "half your leg, and both your lungs."
Over time, Case has all but abandoned conventional song structure. Her songs are pleasantly disjointed and asymmetrical, with choruses and hooks that sneak up, then disappear. She rarely sings as herself, and the characters in her songs are often distressed animals. (Case considers Richard Adams' Watership Down one of the greatest books ever written, which should give some idea of where she's coming from.)
Case may not be Rosemary Clooney, true. Then again, it's doubtful Clooney could pull off a line like "I craved, I ate hearts of sharks."
Neko Case with Jason Lytle. 7:30 p.m. Fri., July 31. Riverplex Amphitheatre at Sandcastle, 1000 Sandcastle Dr., West Homestead. $25 ($30 reserved seating, $30 day of show general admission). 800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com