Neko Case is too country for Nashville. If the scoundrels who control the music conglomerates were even half a birthday candle brighter than their radio-honcho vassals, the insurgent reprobate's most recent studio release, 2002's Blacklisted, would have catapulted her to triple- platinum status long ago. But she's simply not phony enough for the gnomes of Music City. In a realm where front-porch Pollyanna Cyndi Thomson talks about "keeping it real," Case is as bullshit-free as Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard. Toby Keith? She could fill his hand-tooled boots with ease; the question is, with what? In short, mercurial New Pornographer equals bad fit for assembly line dedicated to cranking out singing White House lawn ornaments.
Sure, dedicated mold-busters Gretchen Wilson, Big Kenny, and John Rich are lounging in jackpot junction. But not even those intrepid souls would dare cover a song by hippie folk turd Buffy Sainte-Marie—possessor of the most obnoxious vibrato in the history of sound—as Case does on her newly released live quickie, The Tigers Have Spoken (Anti/Epitaph). Besides, the maverick triumvirate derive much of their charm from adulterating standard Nashville stratagems in a manner dazzling to cosmopolitan grown-ups who wouldn't know a NASCAR trophy from a restraining order. Case reverses the rite on Sainte–Sesame Street's "Soulful Shade of Blue," wisely leaving quaver and schmaltz up where they belong in favor of far greener acres. As on the rest of the album, she's accompanied by fellow Chicagoans the Sadies, and they rise above bar-band status every bit as adroitly as they do when backing Jon Langford.
Still, the lion's share of the rescue credit for "Blue" goes to Case, whose voice—slightly more high than lonesome—could turn a barnful of tigers into butter, or at least an outbuilding filled with big, horny cats. The willing sinner burns brightest on Blacklisted's title track, leaning into every line of the boho-hobo anthem magnetically enough to make the ghost of Bob Wills ride a glittering phantom mule all the way from hillbilly heaven to recording sites Chicago and/or Toronto for an audience. Like all real trailblazers, the mack daddy of western swing (who reportedly did make a frantic 50-mile horseback ride to see Bessie Smith once) treasured raw, unfettered individuality. Unlike the custodians of today's ersatz pastoralisms, Wills wasn't afraid to seek it on the wrong side of the tracks. Any other questions?
Neko Case and Her Boyfriends play Neumo's with the Sadies at 6 p.m. Sat., Nov. 27, and 8 p.m. Sun., Nov. 28. $15 adv./$17.