Neko Case’s voice is brassy, miscegenated and classic. When she’s on a roll, time, place, race and syntax fall away, as exemplified in her best early composition, “Deep Red Bells”: “The red bells beckon you to ride/A handprint on the driver’s side/It looks a lot like engine oil/And tastes like being poor and small/And Popsicles in summer.” Pure emotion conveyed through solid facts rather than weak abstractions, her lyrical details evoke scenes from an unmade autobiographical film about her life. The story arc would be a cross between those recent Ray Charles and Johnny Cash biopics: moments of childhood sweetness experienced in an environment of overwhelming deprivation.
To analyze Case using old models, though, is to invite complication. For example, she began her solo career on Bloodshot Records, a label known for its support of “insurgent country.” And her earliest success came via a supporting role in the New Pornographers, a Canadian power-pop supergroup. In this way, she is typical of today’s independent artist: deeply uncommitted to anything except the multiplicity of sounds she’s capable of making.
Her current label, Anti-, is best known for reviving the careers of old black soul singers Solomon Burke, Mavis Staples and Bettye LaVette, and a few others, Tom Waits and Nick Cave, who draw from the same well. And Case’s voice certainly has enough soul to keep up. It’s filled with untidy emotions, constantly pulling back from the edge of out-of-control. She channels many ghosts: Patsy Cline’s gentle twang and Roy Orbison’s ’50s croon; Angelo Badalamenti’s otherworldly soundtracks for David Lynch’s films; outtakes from the country & western crossover album Aretha never made. (Indeed, Case and Franklin have a cover song in common: Richard Ahert and Kay Rogers’ “Runnin’ Out of Fools.”)
Readers tuned in to the sturm und drang of music journalism may recognize this introduction as a nod to recent controversy, especially the claims for Neko’s soul-music bona fides. In late October, The New Yorker’s pop-music critic, Sasha Frere-Jones, published an article called “A Paler Shade of White.” Roughly speaking, it claimed that indie rock wasn’t black enough. He wrote: “I’ve spent the past decade wondering why rock and roll, the most miscegenated popular music ever to have existed, underwent a racial re-sorting in the nineteen-nineties. Why did so many white rock bands retreat from the ecstatic singing and intense, voicelike guitar tones of the blues, the heavy African downbeat, and the elaborate showmanship that characterized black music of the mid-twentieth century?”
Few, unfortunately, recognized the piece for what it was: an old-fashioned smoke bomb intended to clear the room of competitors. Frere-Jones uses the highly charged term “miscegenation” five times, a word even my computer’s spell-check feature pretends not to recognize.
The remedy Frere-Jones recommends — “indie rock must embrace soul” — is on par with Clement Greenberg’s championing of Abstract Expressionist painting in the ’50s to the exclusion of other styles, or Pauline Kael’s strident support of films with taboo-busting sex and violence in the ’70s. Unfortunately, we’re in the 21st century. The piece triggered blog-born irritation, not well-considered debate. Most frustrating is that it probably served Frere-Jones’ intentions: ubiquity for the provocateur behind the bomb. His position at The New Yorker didn’t make the piece any more coherent; it just ensured that people would notice. It was the literary equivalent of Paris Hilton’s flashing her crotch at the cameras while exiting a limousine: a quick shot at infamy.
Most people prefer fact-based criticism, so back to the subject at hand:
Fact: Neko Case was born in what may well be America’s squarest city, Alexandria, Virginia. Six miles from downtown Washington, D.C., it’s populated largely by professionals in the military and civil service.
Fact: At a young age, her family moved, first to that hotbed of soul, Tacoma, Washington, the Pacific Northwest city she considers home. She attended art school in Vancouver, then began her musical career playing drums for a series of long-forgotten girl-punk groups.
Fact: The aforementioned song “Deep Red Bells” is, indeed, autobiographical, but in ways that defy old-fashioned storylines. From an interview: “That has a lot to do with growing up in Washington state during the time when the Green River Killer was active when I was in junior high school. It has a lot to do with when you’re a kid and you see that stuff on TV all the time . . . These women’s lives just never seemed that important . . . It was all about fear.”
Fact: Unlike most soul singers, who are regarded on the basis of how well they tackle other people’s compositions, Case writes her own material. That is, except when she doesn’t. Her Anti- debut, The Tigers Have Spoken (2004), was a live album containing five covers, including one by Native American folkie Buffy St. Marie.
This push-and-pull between the races never ends. Does Case go in the white slot because she didn’t cover a single African-American songwriter on Tigers? Or is she black because her peers Burke and LaVette filled their own comeback albums with white songwriters? (LaVette tried her hand at Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Lucinda Williams and Sinéad O’Connor; Burke did Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and Van Morrison, and collaborated with Dolly Parton and Gillian Welch.)
We live in a pop culture that’s long since ditched false dichotomies like black and white, one in which artists of all shades and socioeconomic groups defy racial categorizing. Kanye West, an African-American hip-hop artist, samples the French house band Daft Punk, and turns to Japan’s own Andy Warhol, Takashi Murakami, to create his visuals. Pop-punk groups like the Higher or Fall Out Boy have more in common with Usher than they do with Minor Threat. Caucasian Ivy League graduates like Dirty Projectors and Vampire Weekend borrow from African sources like Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade via Graceland, an album by Paul Simon, a Jewish doo-wop-slash-folk-slash-world-music performer.
Fact: The best song on Case’s latest album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006), is “Hold On, Hold On,” which recalls nothing so much as the shifting sands of “Hazy Shade of Winter” — not Simon & Garfunkel’s original but the Bangles’ cover. What glorious musical times. It’s like a perpetual pop avant-garde that pulls you in rather than pushes you away. It should make us listen widely and carefully. To music, that is, not to dumb pronouncements.
Neko Case performs at Disney Hall as part of its Songbook series on Friday, November 16. Earlier this month, Anti- reissued her albums Furnace Room Lullaby (2000), Blacklisted (2002) and Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006).