Over the past five years, it’s become abundantly clear that Neko Case has emerged as the finest female country singer of her generation, the 30-something redhead possessing such a unique, instantly recognizable voice, evoking husky-voiced torch singers from decades ago, the Nashville chanteuses of the 1960s and ’70s, and combining it all with a tough-girl edge, a result of her punk rock background. Her versatility is remarkable; one minute, she’s singing a haunting cover of Tom Waits’s “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis”, and the next, she’s belting out a completely unironic performance of the cheesy 1980s Canadian rock anthem “Your Daddy Don’t Know”, with her buds in The New Pornographers. However, Case is steadily becoming as accomplished a songwriter as she is a vocalist. After her pedestrian, yet very likeable debut The Virginian, 2000’s Furnace Room Lullaby turned heads across North America, featuring collaborations with the likes of Canada’s great Ron Sexsmith and Brian Connelly (from Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet). However, it was the phenomenal Blacklisted, released two years later, that had Case coming into her own as a songwriter, as all but three of the album’s songs were written solely by her.
The idea of a Neko Case live album is a tantalizing one for fans, as anyone who has seen her perform is well aware of just how powerful she can be in a concert setting, and while The Tigers Have Spoken does not disappoint in the least, it has Case throwing listeners a bit of a curveball. Instead of the usual look back at the previous albums’ worth of material that so many artists do, Case is much more adventurous, as this album has her covering several of her favorite tunes, performing a couple of older originals, and throwing in two brand new songs as well.
Recorded in late 2003, over several nights in both Chicago and Toronto, the album is a brief, albeit impassioned, 35-minute collection of covers and original material, with some great guest musicians in tow, including Canadian stalwarts The Sadies, the smooth voices of Kelly Hogan and Carolyn Mark on backing vocals, the gifted multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse, and on one track, the bluegrass group Jim & Jennie and the Pinetops. The Sadies serve as her backing band on nearly every track, the smooth, atmospheric guitar arrangements of brothers Dallas and Travis Good complementing Case’s singing perfectly.
It’s Case, though, who steals the show, as you’d expect, with that siren’s voice of hers. Her sultry vocals are in fine form, but at times, her voice is considerably lighter in tone than usual, thanks to the upbeat arrangements of most of the songs. She performs four original compositions, but to some fans’ surprise, there’s only one selection from her previous three albums, that being “Blacklisted”. The dusky “Favorite” comes from her rare Canadian Amp CD, while we get two fine new songs, the gorgeous ballad “If You Knew”, and “The Tigers Have Spoken”, her most rock-oriented composition yet. Case’s choices of cover material is inspired; among them, the swooning rendition of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Soulful Shade of Blue”, a chuggin’ version of the Shangri-La’s obscurity “Train From Kansas City”, the beautiful Freakwater tune “Hex”, and Loretta Lynn’s famous mid-70s tune “Rated X”. There’s also a version of the traditional “This Little Light” that has a lighthearted, campfire sing-along vocal arrangement by all band members, and most interestingly, “Wayfaring Stranger”, which Case recorded as part of her presentation at a media conference in Toronto last year, with the help of 300 audience members singing along in a theater.
With a warm, reverberating sound that echoes the production on Blacklisted, The Tigers Have Spoken is not so much a concert document than a snapshot of Case and her friends having fun, running through a selection of favorites, and its warm, welcoming feel, not to mention the stellar performances provided by everyone involved, makes this the rarest of live albums, a record that is able to stand on its own, right alongside her previous work. With a new studio album slated for release in the Spring of 2005, this CD will do nothing but whet fans’ appetites for more new material from this highly talented lady.