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Case Study 

Neko Case returns to Tucson to perform the songs she recorded here.

For all the energy of her live performance, Neko Case may seem a bit homesick when you see her at Solar Culture on November 16.

It's not because she's been on tour for the better part of two years.

"The good times far outweigh the bad," she says. "The best parts are being with funny, talented people who you love, and playing music with them. I never get tired of North American scenery, either."

And Case's seen a mighty lot of North American scenery. Her family moved back and forth between Virginia, Washington State and Maine when she was a kid, and since being on her own, she's lived in three cities in five years, not counting the nearly three months she lived in Tucson in 2001 while recording her recent release, Blacklisted. She still commutes from Chicago, her current home, to Canada for her work with the brilliant punk-pop supergroup The New Pornographers.

Maybe because of all that moving around, or the adolescent turmoil that left her homeless altogether at age 15, Case's homesickness seems to be of an existential sort--a kind of resigned, but generally optimistic sensitivity to the lamentable truism, "You can't go home again." It's an emotional theme she tapped first on her second release, the 2000 Furnace Room Lullaby. That record's haunting, lyrical "Porchlight" provided the first serious indication that there was more to Case's music than the rockin' party-punk country that launched her Bloodshot Records career.

"Porchlight," though, was a collaboration with Ron Sexsmith and others from the members du jour of her revolving cast of supporting musicians. For the songs on Blacklisted, Case explored her own lonesome vibe in relative solitude. Except for two covers, and one co-write, the songs are the first she's written entirely on her own, and, although none of them approach the pointed nature of "Porchlight," they fairly ache with longing for safe harbor.

"It's just the frame of mind I was in when I wrote the songs," Case says. As if to reassure those who haven't heard it that she hasn't abandoned high spirits, she quickly adds, "It's not all sadness though. There's a lot of hope on the record as well as humor. It's mostly different because I played a lot of instruments on it. That's something I hadn't done before."

In addition to acoustic guitar and electric tenor guitars, Case's instrumental credits include piano, drums (her original instrument) and saw. But the one instrument she plays far better on Blacklisted than her previous releases is her own voice.

"I had more control over the phrasing," she says. "I think it sounds more like me."

Case's phrasing is influenced heavily by the sound of mostly obscure gospel and torch singers of the past, many of whom are featured on a website she's devoted to them at www.nekocase.com/ ladies.html. The emotional range of her vocals was somewhat limited on Furnace Room and her debut, Neko Case and Her Boyfriends, by the honky-punk inclinations of her accompanists and co-writers. Blacklisted, though, showcases the range of her expressive power. On it, Case's singing has all of the passion of Shannon Wright, with none of the histrionics. It can be spooky, as on the Appalachian haunted opening track "Things I Fear," or furious, as on the spitting-mad "Runnin' Out of Fools," heartsick as on "Look for Me" or even a bit goofy as on "Outro with Bees." Her tone is searing, glistening and startlingly elastic, with nary a flicker of flutter.

Case recorded Blacklisted in a setting tailor-made to loosen her muses. Of Tucson, she says, "There's no denying that it's stunning. I love the light; it makes you feel hopeful." But the main reason she chose Tucson to record, she says, is that "Craig Schumacher has a beautiful studio (Wavelab), and half the musicians who were going to be on the record already live there."

Well, that, and her addiction to Mexican food. It turns out she'll sing for horchata and tortilla soup. "It's really all about food for me," she says. "I'm just a dumb animal."

The half of her chosen musicians who already live here were Giant Sand/Calexico principals Howe Gelb, John Convertino and Joey Burns, all past masters at bringing out the best in artists by giving them space as wide and as colorful as Tucson's natural surroundings. Filling out the studio cast were fellow Arizonan and peerlessly sensitive pedal steel player Jon Rauhouse, longtime collaborator Dallas Good of the Sadies, and journeyman Bloodshot bassist Tom V. Ray (Bottlerockets, Devil in a Woodpile, no relation).

Case has said she wanted to make a more thematic, even cinematic record, but not a Calexico record. The most Calexico-sounding songs on Blacklisted ("Deep Red Bells," "Pretty Girls") were actually arranged by Case herself, with Ray. Still, the record seems informed by many of the same southwestern influences, including hints of border tempos, the odd Santo and Johnny guitar part, and a sizable vestige of her punk country roots.

Notwithstanding that her whole life has been spent where long winters are punctuated by blizzards, she points out that she comes by those roots honestly. "Country music is not region-specific," she says. "Where you find poor people--everywhere--you will find country music. Don't forget country music legends like Loretta Lynn and Buck Owens got their start in Washington state."

Asked her favorite songs on Blacklisted she says, "I don't listen to the record, and probably won't for a while. I was there for every sound for about two and a half months so I can't really hear it at the moment. It's all about the live show at this point."

And the live show in Tucson should be a doozy. "I think the vocals are better live," she says. "Playing in front of people gives you adrenaline that makes you work a lot harder. As for the show in Tucson, hopefully some or all of the people who played on the album will be home and I can talk them into getting on the stage."

Perhaps they'll even make her feel at home for a while.

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