Neko Case
w/Jim & Jennie & the Pinetops, Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter

Thurs Nov 7, Crocodile, $12 advance tickets, $14 dos

w/Jim & Jennie & the Pinetops, Purty Mouth
Fri Nov 8, Crocodile, $12 advance tickets, $14 dos

Neko Case has left the saloon. Shedding the honky-tonk swagger and more traditional, unmistakable Patsy Cline-isms that characterized The Virginian and Furnace Room Lullaby, she's clearly ventured into darker places as of late--noir kinds of places, where the shadows carry the deepest secrets. Her newest record, Blacklisted, is sort of like hanging out at One-Eyed Jack's from Twin Peaks--esoteric, swimmy, and beautiful, but with the distinct feeling that something heavy's going on in the murky depths. It was a notion hinted at on Furnace Room, but Blacklisted confirms it: Ms. Neko Case is one dark chick.

"Yes, I'm really morbid," she confirms. "It's more for the humorous aspects than the goth ones, though. I am into David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti in general; they are so good at establishing a mood. I'm sure that influence showed up in places on the album, but I'm a bit too close to it to pinpoint any specifics."

How about on her cover of the smoldering "I'll Be Around," when her vocals unfurl with a smoky, swanky grace over reverb-heavy guitar? Or "Ghost Wiring," in which she sings, "What's at the heart of your engine's rage?" as a tragic orchestra of pianos, guitars, and drums collapses around her? Like Lynch and Badalamenti, the Seattle expatriate (she moved to Chicago three years ago; "I was sick of losing my homes to condos," she says) meant to create her own mood--"a homesick mood," she explains. "I realized it once I had the songs all in one place. I think it heightened a bit during the recording process; it became at once more paranoid and hopeful."

Fairly recently, Case taught herself to play the guitar--a punk thing to do if there ever was one, maybe harking back to her roots in Vancouver bands Maow and Cub. But despite a voluminously talented backing band of boy- and girlfriends (including Kelly Hogan, Howe Gelb, Joey Burns and Dallas Good), on Blacklisted, it's really all about her voice. It's clear she's a torch singer at heart, touched by the light of country, her voice charmed, sirenlike, and at times vulnerable with emotion. Not to mention that her songwriting is stronger than ever, with melt-worthy lyrics and sweeping melodies that resonate with delicacy and depth.

It's perhaps this swooning quality that has led Case to be characterized as the delicate seductress (that, and the fact that she's a knockout). However, she's never afraid to admit her affinity to the opposite: "[I'm] a clumsy dork. Sexuality is never the focus [of my music], but it is a by-product, I suppose. We're all just dumb animals, after all. Anything can be sexual; it's all relative to the interpreter." Case notes that the media's focus on her looks doesn't bother her, but she does have a pet peeve: feminist overanalysis. "The media (especially women) often read too much sexual politics into artwork. You can only hear the words 'objectify' and 'prone' so many times before you just want to scream at the top of your lungs, 'Let's actually do something for the advancement of women here and talk about the music! I wrote it, performed it, produced it, and play it live 10 months out of the year; is that not enough, man?'"

And, if you were wondering, the "beaver" gas station patch on her record refers to the name of her van, "which I'm madly in love with," she declares. "I spend most of my time in it, so I gave it a little tribute on the CD."

Ultimately, the fact that Case lives out of her van attests to her dedication, integrity, and honesty to her music--three traits straight out of both country and punk, the genres associated most with her Chicago label, Bloodshot. As if to solidify these roots, Case explains, "I hope I can comfort people a bit--maybe show people that making music is fun and accessible to them as well. I'm not out to become Faith Hill, I never want to play an arena, and I never want to be on the MTV Video Music Awards, much less make a video with me in it. I would like to reach a larger audience and see the state of music change in favor of musicians and music fans in my lifetime. I care very much about that."

With everybody rightly fawning over Blacklisted, Case probably won't have to wait much longer.