Strong set of songs has Neko Case on the move


March 31, 2006


"Fox Confessor Brings the Flood," the fourth full studio album from transplanted Chicagoan and alternative country heroine Neko Case, is a slightly sleepier effort than her previous discs.

But the dark and mystical ballads worm their way under your skin and keep you coming back, and that power -- combined with the added exposure being generated by Case's new label, Anti-/Epitaph Records, has been prompting many of the singers legions of devoted fans to say this may be the album that vaults her from the status of underground darling to mainstream stardom.

As usual, Case isn't unduly interested in the hype; she's just eager to hit the road in support of another set of strong tunes, as well as to continue performing as a part-time member of pop supergroup the New Pornographers. We spoke as she prepared to play a number of shows at the South by Southwest Music Conference two weeks ago, before her sold-out record release party tonight at the Vic Theatre, 3145 N. Sheffield. (Martha Wainwright opens at 8 p.m.)

Q. It's always a pleasure to talk to you, Neko, and this is a great album. But I have to tell you: It scares me a bit. I think this is your darkest record.

A. You think so? I thought "Blacklisted" was a bit darker. This one seems a little more smartass to me.

Q. Tell me why you went to Arizona to record.

A. I made "Blacklisted," in Arizona, and I really like working with Craig Schumacher; I think he gets the best on tape. Also, it's pretty convenient that Jon Rauhouse, our pedal steel and banjo player, lives there. Plus, you know, in the middle of winter in Chicago you think, "Well, I like this, but I could use some 75-degree weather."

Q. Isn't that what promoted the Handsome Family to move to the Southwest?

A. I thought they were excited about the price of homes in Albuquerque. Basically, all of us in Chicago who have ever looked for a house have been immediately squashed. I may eventually leave, simply for that reason, but not because I don't love it. I'm not here that often anyway, to be honest with you, because I'm out recording and touring so much. But I just don't have $600,000 for a dump next to a crack house. Anyway, it's relaxing in Tucson, I have friends down there and my dog likes it. It's great.

Q. How did you get Garth Hudson of the Band to play on the record?

A. There's a guy name Peter Moore who is a friend of mine and masters all of my recordings, and he does a lot of tape restoration. He's one of those guys who's worked with tapes so long that he can tell what brand it is by smelling it. He's a total genius, and he's been friends with Garth for a long time because he has done stuff for the Band, re-mastering for CD. One day I had this idea: I had been sitting around watching "The Last Waltz" and I said, "God, wouldn't it be perfect if we could get someone like Garth Hudson to play on our recording?" And then I called Peter, and I wasn't even done asking the question when he was like "I'll call him!" Garth Hudson was literally in the studio a week later. It was amazing: We were pretty blown away and star-struck, but we promised ourselves that we wouldn't ask him any questions about being in the Band. We were all a little shy the first day, and then the second day we all became buddies.

Q. When you say these lyrics are more smartass, what do you mean?

A. Some of them are more tongue-in-cheek; songs like "Hold On, Hold On." Most of them were inspired by Russian and Ukrainian fairy tales that I heard from my mother's side of the family. Those stories are pretty dark and funny, full of stuff about the injustice of the natural world, and I'm very inspired by them. I was quite a reader growing up, and I read all kinds of fairy tales, not just Russian and Ukrainian. But the Eastern European ones definitely speak to me more because they don't have a huge Christian ethic to them. They have morals like, "Don't answer the door if your mom's not home" -- very practical and they're not dignified, and I think kids appreciate that because they're a lot smarter and more well-adjusted than we give them credit for.

Q. There was a lot of talk among industry types at SXSW that this will be your year, and that this is the album that will bring you to the next level in terms of reaching an even larger audience. Do you have any sense of where you're heading career-wise?

A. I don't! [Laughs] I know we're playing in bigger venues, but I'm not looking to make videos or be on MTV. I don't know what "the" album is really supposed to mean. I'm pretty cautious when it comes to projections like that. I'm like, "I'll just keep going to work and we'll see what happens." All I can do is play the shows, do interviews, and talk to people and maybe word will get around and more people will buy this record than the last one. Other than that, I'm not going to a fat farm, getting lipo or guesting on "Desperate Housewives" anytime soon! I'll just keep doing what I've always done. Luckily, I'm not the Strokes; when they love you one minute and dismiss you the next, that's a sad thing.


Frank Kogan's two rock-critic heroes are both Village Voice veterans: Robert Christgau, the self-appointed "Dean of American rock critics," and Chuck Eddy, the wisecracking current music editor. But unlike the writers he emulates, Kogan is piercingly intelligent without ever being pompous, pedantic or inscrutable, as Christgau often is, and Kogan is funny, perverse and contrarian without resorting to shtick or insincerity, as Eddy does. When he makes a wacky claim that Axl Rose and Michael Jackson are the only two "real punks" left on the music scene, he backs it up -- sort of.

Now, Kogan, the former editor of the giddy Why Music Sucks, has compiled his work from his own fanzine as well as the Voice, Spin and numerous other publications in the anthology Real Punks Don't Wear Black (University of Georgia Press, $24.95).

Writes the author: "A piece of music can be many things, often at once: decoration, diversion, distraction, conversation piece, mood enhancer, mood alterer, narrative signal (in the movies), theme song, guide to physical movement (on the dance floor), guide to social interaction (ditto), message to the gods, tool of the gods, mnemonic device, conveyor of lyrics, social bond (sing-alongs), social marker, scene disrupter (blasted out of car windows), self-expression, etc."

In essays about artists ranging from the Ying Yang Twins to the New York Dolls, Mariah Carey to Spoonie Gee, and Bob Dylan to Britney Spears, Kogan is interested in exploring all of the above. And it never fails to be an illuminating and entertaining ride.