Forget everything you think you know about Neko Case.
If you've been following Case's career, that may be a tall order -- you may know her as Maow's drummer, half of the Corn Sisters, the prettiest (by default) of the New Pornographers or the talented vocalist behind a trio of haunting solo albums. But with The Tigers Have Spoken, Case has broken new ground: she has released a "happy" record under her own name. It's still mostly about broken hearts, but we're not expected to share the depression this time.
A short but vibrant live album culled from performances in Chicago and Toronto, Tigers captures the boisterous good cheer of Case's live show, proving once and for all that there's more to her music than dead bodies, wounded relationships and creepy, palpable stillness. It's a rollicking all-night party condensed to the length of an opening band's set, blurring the lines between country, pop and rock 'n' roll. Case is in fine voice, surrounded by a stellar assortment of familiar musicians and collaborators (more on them later), and everything just clicks.
You can credit Tigers' set list for much of its success. Rather than leaning heavily on her most recent album, 2002's Blacklisted, Case rolls out a 40/60 mix of originals and eclectic covers. In addition to "Blacklisted" and the hard-to-find "Favorite", we're treated to a pair of Case-penned winners. "If You Knew" is sardonic sixties girl-group pop with a hint of country twang; it's not a cheerful song per se -- "If you knew what I know / you wouldn't go to see her," Case cautions -- but the melody is powerful and the pace is consistent. The real prize here, though, is the languidly gorgeous title track, which purports to be about tigers -- more specifically, the fact that it's impossible to re-introduce captive-raised tigers to the wild -- but can easily be extended to cover relationships. Case's chained-up tiger comes to a tragic end seconds into the song, but it's such a pretty, autumnal sort of song that you'll probably forget to be depressed.
Case is backed by longtime collaborators The Sadies, who get plenty of opportunities to show off their own chops. They acquit themselves particularly well on a pair of covers. The Shangri-Las' "Train from Kansas City" gets a rip-snorting pop treatment, all jangly guitars and insistent snare drum and feverish tambourine -- and once again, it plays the familiar "Make the Breakup Song Sound Really Happy" card. The Nervous Eaters' "Loretta", on the other hand, becomes a feverish bar-band anthem; you may detect a hint of post-punk in its feverishly chiming guitar line, at least until the solo comes around. This is the track you should use to indoctrinate anyone who assumes that Case does nothing but airless, joyless songs about crop failure, incest and murder.
Earlier in the set, we're treated to what may be the only back-to-back pairing of Buffy Sainte-Marie and Catherine Irwin songs. Sainte-Marie's "Soulful Shade of Blue", upbeat and upfront, recalls the halcyon days when a new dress could solve almost any problem; if you needed to look fabulous for a Saturday night performance at the hall, the better to win back your ex's heart, you simply slipped a few carefully-folded bills to the dressmaker. Irwin's tune, "Hex", may well be Tigers' most trad-country tune -- the glamour in question is a love spell, and guess who's been snared?
Case performs Loretta Lynn's "Rated X" as if she was trained by Lynn herself, though a lighthearted sixties pop sensibility works its way into the rhythm. But if you really want to hear the players have a good time, stick around: public domain classic "This Little Light" gets a passionate take from Case and the Sadies, complete with banjo action from steel guitar hero Jon Rauhouse and backing vocals from Kelly Hogan and Carolyn Mark. It's the sort of set-closing barn-burner that could easily be ten times better, longer and more spontaneous during an unedited live performance -- a drunken romp waiting to happen.
Despite its uniformly high quality, The Tigers Have Spoken is a stopgap release -- Anti- doesn't want you to forget who Neko Case is while she's busy putting the finishing touches on her next studio album. If that record builds on this short set's strengths, and Case continues to move beyond rock and alt-country into general "vocalist" territory, it's likely to be a doozy. Let's hope that she remembers to be happy once in a while, too, even if her songs are still about gloom and doom.