Neko Case

The Tigers Have Spoken

(Mint/Anti-; 2004)

By Scott Reid | 10 November 2004

A live release from Neko Case was just inevitable. Though on record she has been--since her 1997 debut, The Virginian--expanding her sound into one of alt-country's most intriguing and versatile, her live shows have always remained a spectacle all their own. Never one to rehash her latest material with barely enough energy to exert the songs and a nonchalant "thank you" or two, Case has become just as known for her genre-bending albums as her ability to pull it all off live with a personality, and voice, that cannot possibly be accurately contained on record.

You could catch her shows on a regular basis, and still hear her perform something new with each. Covers abound, from traditional to obscure favorites from Case's own trusted cannon, and when we do get an original, it's often revamped or performed with her supporting band (she's had several over the years, including the severely underrated but now defunct Local Rabbits) taking far more than a subtle background role. Like Neil Young, Case selects her backing groups with a certain sound in mind, and that understanding goes a long way in making her live shows what they are.

Enter the Sadies: a Toronto-based rock quartet that, on top of touring with Neko earlier this year (Tigers' songs are culled from seven days worth of shows in three venues in Chicago and Toronto), backed up Rick White on the self-titled Unintended record and recently released their own new studio recording, Favourite Colours. On Tigers' few familiar moments, like "Blacklisted" (the Sadies' Dallas Good played guitar on the studio version) and "Favorite" (co-written by the Sadies), the band does their best to balance the song's original feel with a looseness that allows Case to change them enough to sound invigorated, even for those of us that have heard both a hundred times before. "Blacklisted's" ingenious structure is perhaps even more effective here, and "Favorite" (note the control she has over her voice during this song) is as irresistible here as it is on the Canadian Amp EP.

Both of these tracks (the only two from her back catalogue), while fantastic, merely reiterate that Case is first and foremost an entertainer with a voice as powerful as her stage presence. Tigers, in limiting the familiar by being extremely selective in what was chosen from each show (including her ideaCity Conference appearance),
does a more than adequate job in this daunting task--especially since many fans will instinctively be disappointed with the exclusion of Case's best. "Deep Red Bells," quot;Porchlight," "Bought & Sold," "Set Out Running," "I Wish I Was the Moon," "High on Cruel," and her as-good-as-it-sounds Everly Brothers duet with Carl Newman, "Bowling Green," are all sorely missing, and next to an extended, crowded cover of "This Little Light," regrettably so.

Still, the record works without all these notable exclusions; a live "Ghost Wiring" would have been incredible, for sure, but it's on the new tracks ("If You Knew" and the title track) and vast array of covers that Case and the Sadies really make the record far more than just a good quality sample of her infamous live shows. "If You Knew" in particular is astonishing. The melody is equal parts "Deep Red Bells and "Pretty Girls," and its performance is so tight that it's often easy to forget that it's a live recording; the track opens Tigers with the same confidence as "Set Out Running" or "Things That Scare Me" had for their respective albums. Case's voice is practically flawless throughout (as are, it should be noted, background vocals) and during the song's final chorus ("You wouldn't turn away from my love / It's what you said that you believed in"), it finally unleashes into her taming higher register, offering the song yet another climax. The final, P.S.-style jab at the song's protagonist ("I say this as a friend / You'll be the poor boy in the end") would be inconsequential in the hands of a lesser talent, but is wickedly poignant here.

The other new song, "The Tigers Have Spoken," is also a stunner--a beautifully fluid intertwining two-guitar hook pulls the mid-tempo song together, and though Case's voice is kept to a modest range, its restraint works highly in its favour. Her lyrical tale of a caged tiger being shot "on his chain / In a field behind the cages" is far more sympathetic and plaintive than a diva-esque performance would've afforded. But such is Case's understanding of her work, and if these two tracks are indicative of what to expect from next year's new full-length (as of the minute I write this, Mint Records offers us a Spring '05 release date), she may just meet expectations set ridiculously high by Blacklisted.

But, unfortunately, it's all we get in terms of her original material. The rest of Tigers consists of covers. Of course, some tracks work better than others, and not all of her fans will share her very unique taste; as such, some of the covers performed here are incredible, some merely good -- but never, even during the hyper-western version of "This Little Light," cumbersome or boring. Buffy St. Marie's "Soulful Shade of Blue" follows "If You Knew," and though a beautiful song its own right, it doesn't quite compete with the--and I mean this in the most flattering of ways--modern undertones of "Knew" -- something which isn't capitalized upon until the cover of Catherine Irwin's "Hex," just one track later. Case gently transforms the song, keeping its piercing melody intact, using the seemingly limitless range of all three vocalists to make each of the song's several sections sound remarkably more animated than the original.

Her cover of the Shangri-La's "Train From Kansas City" (which, performed here, sounds like it could've been written for Furnace Room Lullaby) follows, and picks the tempo back up, retaining all of the great qualities of the original while--especially during its breakdown--adding a strong Blacklisted feel that helps to make this version as much Case's piece as the Shangri-Las. It rivals, but does not beat, previous covers like Lisa Marr's "In California," Neil Young's "Dreaming Man" and Aretha Franklin's "Runnin' Out of Fools," succeeding in the way she is able to change the feel of a track without forfeiting any of its original appeal.

The more faithful cover of Nervous Eaters' "Loretta" came across much more overwhelming live, but even here it still has its moments -- especially the chorus' background harmonies, which, despite being fairly subtle and low in the mix, offer a surprising depth to a song that is fashioned around the same traditional progression that makes her cover of Loretta Lynn's "Rated X" sound like its slightly sedated, southern cousin. Like "Loretta," it's one of the album's less obvious choices, and a song that works far better with Case performing it in front of you; bereft of this visual accompaniment, it falls comparatively flat, though she still proves herself far more than capable of delivering the song with the same kind of respect (she clearly loves each song she bothers to transform) she delivers to each of her covers.

"Wayfaring Stranger" ends the record, topping Papa M's semi-recent interpretation ("Over Jordan," from his excellent 2001 release Whatever, Mortal) with its impeccable three-part harmony. The full-on vocal chorus is even better, and a perfect compliment to the Iron & Wine/acoustic-and-banjo arrangement that Mark, Hogan and Case hover over during its verses and the especially haunting final reprise.

"Tigers Are Noble," which preceded the album's title track during one of the shows, is tacked on the end, adding some humour (it makes a case for the nobleness of kids being "tiger food") to a sometimes decidedly heavy record. A little unnecessary, perhaps, but like the inclusion of "Loretta" or even "Soulful Shade of Blue," it goes a long way in the record's attempt to portray many--but certainly not all--sides of Neko Case, and remind of us of all that makes her such a extraordinary, and continually promising, talent. Tigers cannot compete with an actual Case show, of course, and after Blacklisted we don't really need to be reminded of her talent, but, hell, why not? She could release ten more of these and I'd religiously wear out each one; Neko Case has that kind of power over her fans, and The Tigers Have Spoken has little problem explaining why.