Clearly defiant, unclearly defined

For many twangy young singer/songwriters, the alt-country label is a badge of honor. Neko Case thinks it sucks.

With the release of Case’s first celebrated solo album, The Virginian (Mint, 1997), she was so branded, frequently painted as a saucy poster child for the nuevo-genre.

“I never want to be called ‘alt-country’ again as long as I live,” Case declared hotly during a recent phone interview from her Arizona home. “I just hate the term — I hate it. I don’t want to be called that with every ounce of my being.”

Case’s early forays into post-punk power pop in Canadian bands Maow and, later, The New Pornographers, work against her wishes, no matter how thick the old-time country feel gets with her other side project, The Corn Sisters, or on her later solo albums Furnace Room Lullaby (Bloodshot, 2000) and last year’s stripped-down Canadian Amp EP (Lady Pilot).

Eclectic tastes = hyphenated.

Case’s beguiling newest release, Blacklisted (Lady Pilot/Bloodshot, 2002), is frequently slapped with a more provocative label, “country-noire,” suggesting late Nashville icon Patsy Cline torching up Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks score. Which isn’t that far off the mark really.

Reverb-drenched soundscapes are frequently fleshed out by sexy baritone guitar, while Case’s dreamy singing is a creamy blend of sweet and gritty, like a wet piece of hard caramel dropped in dirt. Her bold inflections are startlingly emotive, all the more powerful for feeling unstudied; her strong songwriting gravitates to dim corners of darkened lives.

She doesn’t mind “country-noire” that much. But it’s still a hyphen more than just “country.”

Country music is big enough to include Case without having to relegate her to its fringes, she asserts. If the genre can contain the “incredibly hollow and soulless” bare-midriff and cowboy-hat hokum of Shania Twain and Tim McGraw, then there ought to be room for her, too.

“I grew up listening to country music, and I want to play country music,” Case says.

“All the great hallmarks of country music are gone,” she continues. “You can’t play the Grand Ole Opry. You can’t drive around like Loretta Lynn with her husband and give your 45s to radio stations and have a hit record two weeks later. So the one thing left … is to call it country music.

That’s what I want,” she declares.

Case’s passion and candor, coupled with her habit of emphatically punctuating key words in conversation, can make her seem like she’s got a chip on her shoulder. She doesn’t, she insists.

“It’s not rebellious when you’re doing what you want to do,” Case declares.

But if you roar out of the gate cranking out pointedly rebellious music, you should expect some confusion to ensue.

Case’s career began behind a drum set in a series of Canadian punk bands, leading up to the brassy trio that at once brings to mind kitty cats and Chinese socialists.

She was about 25 when she joined Maow. It was, she insists, her first time singing in front of people. And if you’re a Case fan now, enraptured by that rich confection of a voice, the temptation is to go: Yeah, right.

Case shrugs off such protests.

“I knew I liked to sing when I was a kid, [but] I never sang in front of anyone,” she explains. “I wasn’t very confident; I was really, really shy.

“I think I just knew I really wanted to do it,” she continues. “I listened to a lot of really old records — especially old gospel records — and those ladies could sing. You could tell that the way they were singing was physical, like they could feel it; it turned them into something other than a person. I thought: Wow, it would be so cool to feel like that.

“If I could understand that just from hearing them do it, I wanted to know what it was like to actually do it, ’cause I figured it must have been 10 times better, y’know?”

And sometimes it really is, she says, when pressed — though Case isn’t the kind of performer to make too much of her own music. Again and again, she downplays her talents.

“I was brought up to be overly modest,” she reveals. “The worst trait in a human being, according to my mother and father, was vanity.”

And here is where Case becomes truly complicated. Her career has by turns accented and played down her red-headed good looks, at times boldly brandishing in-your-face sexuality — from her early wild-girls-in-the-driver-seat music with Maow to recent magazine photos of her in cheesecake poses that she passes off as “s••t I didn’t want to do.”

There’s also the “Beaver” badge Case sometimes wears, and which graces the new CD. “That’s the name of my van,” she offers dismissively. (In a recent e-mail, Case’s press agent, Stolie, did nothing to clear things up: “She’s just got a weird fetish for all things ‘beaver,’ and I’m pretty sure in all senses of the word.”)

“If you saw me playing, you’d realize I was very un-erotic,” Case insists. “I’m just not like that; I’m kind of a clumsy teenage boy in a lot of ways.”

But ask the clumsy teenage boys in the crowd: No doubt they see it another way.

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