100 Greatest Women, #88: Neko Case

#88

Neko Case

2008 Rank: New Entry

Born in Virginia, Neko Case moved around both of the U.S. coasts as a child, eventually settling in Tacoma, Washington, long enough to refer to it as her de facto hometown before heading off to Vancouver to earn a Fine Arts degree. During her time in Canada, Case began performing with a litany of local acts, including punk band The Propanes, indie-pop band Cub, and honky-tonk outfit The Weasels.

Case assembled her own backing band, dubbed Her Boyfriends, from the Vancouver scene, and she recorded her debut album, The Virginian, in 1997. The album immediately announced Case as a phenomenal talent with its thoughtful brand of traditional country filtered through an art-school punk aesthetic. Case’s original compositions impressed for the clarity of their expression, while her inspired choices of cover tunes— including a scintillating rendition of The Everly Brothers’ “Bowling Green”—demonstrated a real facility with genre conventions.

By the time she readied her sophomore album, the alt-country boom was in full swing, and Bloodshot Records, then the home of like-minded artists including Kelly Hogan and Ryan Adams, issued the stellar Furnace Room Lullaby. The album broke Case to a wider audience: The haunting title track was featured in Sam Raimi’s film The Gift, and its accompanying music video was played in moderate rotation on CMT. Writing or co-writing each of the album’s dozen tracks, Case began working in the country-noir vein that would define the remainder of her career. From the breakneck honky-tonk of “Mood To Burn Bridges” and “Whip the Blankets” to the exquisite torch balladry of “South Tacoma Way” and “Twist the Knife,” Case proved as capable of sliding effortlessly between country styles as any artist of her era.

But what elevated Case’s work above even the best of her contemporaries was her extraordinary voice. Armed with impeccable pitch and range— the high note she hits to close the album is still chilling almost two decades later— and with the interpretive skill to know when to belt, croon, snarl, or wail, Case is a vocalist whose unrivaled talents would have made her an A-list star in another generation. In a just world, “Neko” would have taken her place alongside “Dolly,” “Loretta,” and “Emmylou.”

By her own admission, Case never courted mainstream country success. Instead, she’s emerged as one of the leading artists in the Americana movement throughout the aughts. On her third album, Case went solo and delivered her second straight masterpiece of American Gothic country. Blacklisted drew heavily from the narrative-driven tradition of Bobbie Gentry: The influence of Gentry’s songwriting is clear on songs like “Deep Red Bells” and “Pretty Girls,” but with Case’s contemporary point-of-view. Again, Case’s singular vision and her singing earned raves, and the album landed on a slew of year-end best-of lists.

Case began to push beyond traditional country forms with 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, her first album to debut on The Billboard 200 chart. Incorporating more abstract imagery and using unconventional song structures, the album was Case’s headiest work. Songs “Hold On, Hold On” and the gospel rave-up “John Saw That Number” were featured in popular television series, while “Star Witness,” “That Teenage Feeling,” and “Maybe Sparrow” all scored some minor AAA radio airplay. Her next two solo albums sold even better: Middle Cyclone debuted at #3, and The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You bowed at #12. Both of those albums moved in a more adult-pop direction that resonated with a wider audience. Middle Cyclone earned Case her first Grammy nomination (for Best Contemporary Folk Album), and The Worse Things Get was nominated for Best Alternative Album.

Case’s influence has also extended to her many side projects: In addition to recording a killer live album, The Tigers Have Spoken, with alt-country stalwarts The Sadies, she’s contributed to each album by the power-pop supergroup The New Pornographers. Case also recorded an album with fellow country singer Carolyn Mark as The Corn Sisters, and she’s contributed backing vocals for artists including Hogan, The Mekons, and John Doe. In 2017, Case teamed up with k.d. lang and Laura Veirs for the well-received case/lang/veirs, which found common ground among their preferred country, pop, and contemporary folk genres.

Case remains an active, driving force in Americana. The title track to her forthcoming album, Hell-On, is a knotty, rootsy tune that is more akin to her Blacklisted and Fox Confessor eras, suggesting that Case will only continue to build upon her reputation in the years to come.

Essential Singles

  • Furnace Room Lullaby, 2000
  • Star Witness, 2006
  • Maybe Sparrow, 2006
  • This Tornado Loves You, 2009
  • Atomic Number (case/lang/veirs), 2017
  • Hell-On, 2018

Essential Albums

  • The Virginian (with Her Boyfriends), 1997
  • Furnace Room Lullaby (with Her Boyfriends), 2000
  • Blacklisted, 2002
  • The Tigers Have Spoken (with The Sadies), 2004
  • Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, 2006
  • case/lang/veirs, 2016

Next: #87. Jessi Colter

Previous: #89. Bonnie Guitar

 

 

1 Comment

  1. Neko Case is one the best female artists ever. Everything she touches is gold. From her solo work, her band, The New Pornographers and her album with K.D. Lang and Laura Veirs.

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