By MARK GUARINO
Who knew there was still a place in modern life where tweets do not reference a certain over-hyped Internet platform but an actual live critter decked out with feathers, a beak and two clawed feet?
That certain place is whatever theater Neko Case is performing her songbook, a kind of arboretum of odd, spooky fables populated by magpies, tigers, fauna, sharks, elephants — a kind of cross-pollination between indie rock and Richard Scarry.
A sold-out show at the Chicago Theatre Friday gave Case and her band the opportunity to pursue these instincts on a grander scale. Projections of animals scrolled behind the music while high above, a giant-sized owl gazed out at the audience with stern, yellow eyes.
Yet even with the larger production budget, the music darted in and out of shadows, refusing to be nailed down to one style.
It did not have to be this way. After all, this is the year that Case, a singer with five albums behind her, is finally reaching the Starbucks demographic. This sold-out show is evidence of her mass-market outreach, yet it was gratifying to witness this breakthrough happening through music and an aesthetic that remains distinctively her own.
Nothing about Case’s music follows expectations. Heroines in her songs do not profess their love directly or hang their hang-ups on top of blasting pop choruses. Instead their yearnings are manifested through metaphorical highways, high plains, deep forests and furious cyclones tearing through the soil’s arteries.
Her six-member band staged the narratives in shadowy country noir, with guitarists Jon Rauhouse and Paul Rigby playing off the other — one driving a jittery rhythm underneath things with the other coloring in the moods with smoky reverb. The band’s strengths were revealed in the pockets they opened for Case to fill in with her voice, a lustrous instrument that somehow manages to reveal lonesomeness and determination at the same time.
Her songwriting has greatly improved with each successive album, especially on “Middle Cyclone” (Anti), her newest, which features songs that are wisely truncated but with all their pop mystery squeezed tight. Those songs thrived by creating disturbing contrasts. On “Prison Girls,” Case sang from the perspective of a narrator hypnotized in a dangerous seduction: “I love your long shadows and your gunpowder eyes,” she swooned while backup singers Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor wordlessly teased in perfect girl group harmony, a kind of zombie Dixie Cups.
Case, who played occasional acoustic and electric guitar, sang with resolute clout yet never reached full-blown catharsis. Despite the music’s natural tension, between songs she cracked wise with Hogan. Long ago, both tended bar at the Hideout, a neighborhood music club outside Old Town, and the long, strange journey that led them to Friday’s austere setting was manifested in their sleek, black cocktail dresses.
“I’ve opened Pabst Blue Ribbon for all, y’all,” Hogan said.
The 20-song, 80-minute show included a cover of Sparks’ “Don’t Turn Your Back On Mother Earth,” which felt out of place for its blatant plea. Yet on a song like “Teenage Feeling,” the harmonies sailed to the moon while the banjo and guitar dug into the soil, a confused dynamic that forced the crowd silent because they likely understood.
Mark Guarino is a Chicago-based journalist. Visit mark-guarino.com.