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Neko Case | The Tigers Have Spoken (Mint/Anti)
For someone who regularly pontificates about hard work, Neko Case hasn't always slogged it out as hard as she'd like us to believe, especially in this part of the globe. Notably, despite her lax promotional work and an ambivalent attitude to touring outside of the US and Canada, Case has been ruthlessly unsympathetic to the abilities of her past two European labels - namely Loose and Matador's European wing, proving that she doesn't always reap what she sows with such sanguine spirit. Now comes her first release on yet another label, that nominally ticks two contractual obligation cliché boxes in one stroke - a live and covers record rolled into one.
However, as with almost everything Case has done since 2000's swooning sophomore set, 'Furnace Room Lullaby', her boorish and belligerent business ethics don't get in the way of a great album; live, cover-strewn or whatever. Taped at live shows in Chicago and Toronto in early-2004, 'The Tigers Have Spoken' is thus a warmly-recorded and superbly sequenced set of covers, a couple of older lesser-known Case originals and two new songs. In essence, this is neither a plodding trawl through the obvious "hits", nor a barrel-scrapping fans-only affair - but a sturdy album in its own right. Admittedly, the medium may be a little rough around the edges, but the songs still live and breathe just as well as a more polished studio affair.
Although once again it's Case's lustrous voice that carries the bulk of the magic, her choice of collaborators is equally as sound; with the likes of Jon Rauhouse, Kelly Hogan, The Sadies and Jim & Jennie And The Pinetops playing their part in her flexible back-up collective. Flitting between the rockabilly twang of 'Furnace Room Lullaby', the sparseness of 2001's 'Canadian Amp' and the smouldering atmospherics of 2002's 'Blacklisted', we find Case simultaneously consolidating her story-so-far, revisiting her country/punk roots and predicting her next steps forward.
Consequently Case and co. present themselves as VU-inspired-rockers as they rip-it-up through The Shrangi-Las' Train From Kansas City and The Nervous Eaters' Loretta. On a stomping cover of Loretta Lynn's infamous Rated X, Case tips her Stetson honourably to one of her gutsy cowgirl predecessors, whilst a soulful take on Catherine Ann Irwin's Hex acknowledges an affinity with a contemporary neo-country chanteuse. Although Case revisits some of her own older material with a fairly solid conviction, it's her two new songs here (the towering If You Knew and the eerie eponymous track) that really sizzle with the sumptuous passion of someone fully realising the power of their own songwriting potential.
Ultimately the closing track - a reading of the traditional Wayfaring Stranger - is perhaps the only filler nominee. Not that it's a poor performance per se - especially with the suitably stirring chorus-line support from the crowd - it's just such a painfully over-covered standard that it jars with the rest of an album that breaks balls and mends hearts with such inspirational individuality and vigour. But we'll let you off again Neko; on the proviso that the next thing you do is packed with at least half as many stunning moments as this.