Mon March 31, Crocodile, $10, 6:30 pm (all ages).
Certain singers develop voices that tell their story before you even begin to hear their lyrics. A trembling, stuttered presentation warns of a life spent drowning in broken hearts and lost hopes. An old-man blues demeanor can tell of hardship turned to hardened determination, and a voice that grinds its words like a trash compactor, well, that's the domain of Wendy Case, the frontwoman for Detroit's best answer to Cheap Trick, the Paybacks.
Case has a voice that shows she's lived it before she even tells the stories--a masculine-sounding, grainy style that belies her easygoing demeanor with a closet of old skeletons. "If indeed a voice is born of lifestyle, then I probably did about everything to my voice that you can do," she explains with a hearty laugh. "I think it's just a case of living long enough and throwing enough energy into living, and that's reflected in what you do, how you present yourself, how you think, and even how you sound."
A child of Akron, Ohio, the Carolinas, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, Case cut her teeth in the San Francisco punk scene in the '80s, befriending legends like the Avengers' Penelope Huston, as well as members of the Nuns, Crime, and Flipper, but falling into a world that was both literally and figuratively dying a slow death. "It was the end of the punk rock scene, and everybody was barely hanging in there. Everybody started doing too many drugs, and that's about the time I got there," she says. "So needless to say it was a cultural as well as a musical endeavor, and I sort of lived the life for a while. I was a curious kid who got a little more wrapped up in that whole drug culture than I should have. But I don't regret any of it. I've certainly lost a lot of friends along the way, and there are aspects that proved to be very unpleasant over time, but I learned a lot."
After bottoming out in the Bay Area, Case moved back to Michigan to "lick her wounds," and started playing in different bands that eventually led to her hooking up with the Paybacks crew (drummer Mike Latulippe and bassist John Szymanski, who are also in the Henchmen, with guitarist Marco Delicato--who has since been replaced by Danny Methric). The band got its first big break as the opening act on White Stripes frontman Jack White's 2001 comp, The Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit, with the single "Black Girl," a definite standout against heavyweights like the Stripes, the Von Bondies, and the Dirtbombs. But beyond the Detroit superstar blessing, the Paybacks have proven their longevity with a mix of pop hooks that launch out between hard-rock riffs (stemming from the band's love of both Alice Cooper and the Cars) and Case's lyrics, which stride past tough-chick stereotypes into a world of older-and-wiser honesty.
"Just You Wait," the opening track off the band's 2002 debut, Knock Loud, jump-starts with the line, "Just you wait 'til I get home, I know, it'll be better than before/And when I walk right through that door, I won't be afraid to love you anymore," with Case admitting she's been selfish, unkind, and unexpressive in the relationship. On "Thin Air," she sings, "Everybody's got the answers for me/Everybody thinks they know what's right, so right/How do they know what I need.... Your affection is a new toy/I'll do all I can to break it/I can never have the nice things, 'cause I don't know how to take it." Hers isn't the case of a woman with a manhandled voice attempting to clone hard-rock machismo--she's simply singing the truths she's lived through, which, combined with a sandpapered voice that could smooth the spikes off barbed wire, makes for a compelling performance on multiple levels.
"For me, [songwriting] was a matter of maturing--not just musically, but as a human being, living through all of that and arriving right side up and making enough sense of it to write songs about it," she says. "I totally had to grow into it, though, because I think the only time you really begin to show any great evolution is when you begin to tell the truth.