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With her hotly-anticipated new album, Neko Case lends cinematic grandeur to rock swagger.

By Mark Guarino

Shaming gold diggers in sexy synth-pop is what keeps the Hall & Oates legacy vibrant.

Yet until Neko Case came along, the term “Maneater” referenced women who metaphorically ate men alive, hollowing out their wallets until tossing them in a back alley like useless humps of flesh.

Twenty-six years later, Case doesn’t beat around the metaphorical bush. She hacks it to twigs with a chainsaw like 1982 never happened.

“I’m a man-man-man, man-man-maneater/ but still you’re surprised-prised-prised/when I eat ya,” she sings. “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” like many new songs on Middle Cyclone (Anti-), her fifth studio album, are sung from the perspective of, or in the advocacy for, animals.

And these critters are pissed. Elephants trample out of cages; killer whales live up to their names and do the deed that inevitably results in human limbs washed away in the tide.

We’re no different. On “I’m an Animal,” Case sings: “You can say it’s my instinct/yes I still have one/there’s no time to second guess it.” If amateur porn and unfortunate plastic surgery decisions didn’t prevent PETA from signing up Pamela Anderson as a spokesperson, then they would do themselves a disservice if they didn’t solicit the services of this 38-year-old singer, who has consistently personified the animal kingdom in song in such a way that all the good and all the bad are not just entrancing, they’re perfectly reasonable.

“I really like native American folk tales because they don’t consider animals or people separate, they don’t consider instinct negative. Which western society does,” says Case. “They consider them feminine or negative. But we need instinct because we are animals. To deny who we are is not healthy.”

To say that Case is one of the most unlikely and most likely indie music stars of the past decade, are both true statements. Regarding the latter, all the ingredients are present to make the case for lasting fame in what is increasingly a temporary world: Steel ambition (good for staying the course), a powerhouse voice (good for raising the rafters) and siren red hair (good for fogging up ironic eyewear of music bloggers).

While those have helped, not hurt, these reasons by themselves would simply position Case in the retro stylist camp occupied by Jenny Lewis or Zooey Deschanel: Starbucks stereo faves both pretty tame and tamely pretty.

For anyone who has followed her unconventional body of work and her awkward but often mesmerizing live performances, it becomes obvious that Case’s rise is unusual because it is one that seems wholly her own. She is not someone who would appear hungry for the spoils of media attention and fan adoration, simply because she knows that it’ll likely happen anyway. That self-assurance has allowed Case to step aside to let the fools rush in and appear humbled they found her door. While artists possessing half her talent spend years crafting a mythology, Case has afforded herself the luxury of crafting a songbook with mythological suspense. Like the folk stories she admires, her music feels less the possession of the singer than possessing the singer and pushing her to sing tales drenched in blood, mystery and escape. There is no blueprint available to create songs like these, so the singer — despite whatever acclaim came before, comes now or will arrive next week — will always remain rather humble in their presence.

“She likes to keep it down home,” said Kelly Hogan, the Chicago area chanteuse who has sung on Case’s albums and tours since 2000. “We thought of getting a guitar roadie for her since tuning can wreck your momentum. But she refused because she said if she was 11 or 12, she would want to see a girl onstage tuning her own guitar. She doesn’t want it to be Sheryl Crow-y. No offense to Sheryl Crow, but we just want to keep it real. We’d feel stupid otherwise.”

Middle Cyclone is the Case album a fan would want to hand out first to solicit potential converts. It features some of her strongest melodies and mood shifts — rock swagger boiling with horns (“Red Tide”), folk lullaby (“Middle Cyclone”) and cinematic grandeur (“This Tornado Loves You”)  — while at the same time keeping true to her instinctual feeling for atmosphere and unexpected instrumentation.

The title song is a simple beauty, the acoustic guitar brushing under her voice until then, a children’s music box snaps open, the mechanical chimes clicking slightly off the beat in a way that unsettles the otherwise luxurious mood.

Case’s voice is just as double-sided. Naturally pretty when subdued, it can also crest high and far — expressing the far range of lonesomeness, not rage. The insecurity, fear and also crystalline thoughts that appear so easily in the silence past midnight is what Case summons in her singing; her voice sounds broadcast from the spine of a pulp novel, an exotic transmission of imagery that at the turn of a page can switch into a nightmare.

On “Prison Girls,” the echo of the guitar casts giant shadows against the wall as she sings: “Is it a lady or is it a man/humming helicopters through the blades of a fan/ I love your long shadows and your gunpowder eyes.”

“The songs to me are like little movies,” she says. “Movies that are complete but they don’t give you the ending.”

The restlessness they continue to possess is likely due to her own zigzags across the map. After growing up in the South and Northwest, Case joined and jettisoned from musical tribes in musically rich cities such as Vancouver, Seattle and Chicago, all of which were key to both finding her sound and enlisting the people who would help develop it with her. Her current band — including Hogan, bassist Tom Ray and guitarists Paul Rigby and Jon Rauhouse — are players who can deliver nuance, but also make grand gestures in under two minutes — the typical length of which she likes her songs to keep pace.
“I’ve been really influenced by Freddie Mercury and what he would do in a Queen song. On Queen II, those albums were so packed with melodies and so epic and so great and a lot of the time, the melodies wouldn’t repeat twice. They’d be so addictive you’d have to listen to the songs again,” she says. “I don’t think a song has to go on forever. After awhile, a great chorus is punishing if you hear it too many times.”

She describes the New Pornographers, the Vancouver indie-pop collective of which she is a frequent member and collaborator, as reunion of old friends. Her current band is more the family.

“We really love each other. It sounds so flaky and made up and fake, but it really is that way. I’ve just been lucky. I try to make decisions based on us as a group rather than what I would want,” she says.

Hogan remembered their introduction came courtesy the U.S. Post Office, in 1997 when working at Chicago’s Bloodshot Records and coming across a Canadian press clipping she found intriguing. That September, she dragged the label founders to CMJ in New York City to attend Case’s set, which led to her signing with the label and opening the gateway to a U.S. audience.

Case says she is a “control freak,” but there are limits. For every album since then, Case solicits vocal ideas from Hogan by sending demos in the mail with instructions to conjure up background parts that defy mimicking the lead. The results are songs with voices intertwined, or staggered in the background, in ghostly commentary about what’s happening out front.

“She gives me total free rein to invent sections,” she says. “We trust each other and like what the other person does … it seems like a really natural way to work.”

On Anti-, Case transitioned from underground favorite to visible breakthrough; 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood continues to sell, having already moved over 200,000 copies in the U.S. While that may not raise an eyebrow in Celine Dion’s mirror, it is significant for a songwriter whose songs could be co-writes with Aesop or the Brothers Grimm. On Middle Cyclone, Case was halfway through the writing when she hooked into the album’s undercurrent of dramatic weather shifts — tornados, in particular.

“I really love the idea of making modern fairy tales. We don’t have that now, but it feels like we should. We need to include things like animals and plants because they’re here! They really are a part of our world,” she says. (For the record, Case lives with four dogs — three greyhounds and one mutt, a half shepherd, half chow cocktail — and two cats.)

Despite her inclination to blur their edges, she refuses to adopt the hoary convention that she is somehow a conduit for her songs, but rather says they result from a less mystical process: work. “I’m not invoking spirits of any kind,” she said. “I’m just a sensitive person with an active imagination.”

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