by Mark Guarino
The sad truth is, these days most Americans are exposed to new singers through three people: a snippy British metrosexual, a washed-out dance choreographer and a jolly music producer who calls everyone “dawg.”
Cartoon television personalities create cartoon music stars. The “American Idol” franchise has set the bar so low that the new generation of singers it forced the mainstream to consume largely vanished without a trace. No surprise — In their best efforts to imitate the looks, moves and vocal ticks of bonafide stars of the past, they were encouraged to be disposable knock-offs, just like those Gucci purses you can buy on the sidewalks of Times Square.
In a perfect world, the 30 million viewers who tune into “American Idol” each week would instead discover the voice of Neko Case. On display at a sold-out show at the Vic Friday, her voice, personality and songs do not follow any formula and, as a result, are genuinely stunning. There were times during her show that watching Case open her mouth to sing and hearing what came out did not match up. It felt like an illusion. Her vocals — nasally, colorful, emotive, soaring — created a rare moment of wonder where you were tricked into thinking: Where is that sound coming from?
She is on her own trajectory at the moment, appearing on covers of magazines, on network television, on commercial radio, enough media attention to think she’s a new flavor of the month. She’s not. “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” (Anti-) is Case’s fifth full-length album; her first was in 1997. She also is a member of The New Pornographers, the Canadian indie pop collective.
The show at the Vic was a homecoming of sorts considering she used to live here when she was on the roster of Bloodshot Records, the Chicago alt-country label with whom she recorded three albums, still her best. Her five-member band reflects those days and is a testimony to the versatile music scene here as it includes members of local outfits like Devil in a Woodpile, Low Skies as well as guitarist Jon Rauhouse, who played an arsenal of instruments from pedal steel guitar to banjo, and singer Kelly Hogan who, also in a perfect world, would be a headliner.
The band perfectly evoked the moods, danger and bottomless yearning of Case’s songs. The music touched upon traditional folk music and country soul. On “Dirty Knife,” the band’s delicate touch — drum mallets pounding, a wash of cymbals, a clucking banjo and hard, snapping bass notes — froze the tension of the song, releasing it only until the finish.
This was music that would serve a David Lynch film well. Other songs, short as the craftiest pop song, were the stuff of back porch country music. With Case admitting to having seen a doctor about her throat that afternoon, even the flaws were essential in these dreamy sounds. Populated by animals, forests, knives and beating hearts, her lyrics are pure Edgar Allen Poe, yet in singing them, she is capable of bringing the spooky mood a sensual beauty. Beginning and ending the song “Furnace Room Lullaby” by herself, she sang its final thought — “all I hear is your heart” — stretching each word apart with pain, but gliding up the octaves as if towards grace.