Neko Case scares me. Always has. And never more so than she does here on Blacklisted, her third solo full-length. I don’t mean scary in the dumbass cheap horror-show way that tries to pass for scary in the current rock world. Rather, Case lets real life do the frightening, via murders on the interstate, foreboding flocks of blackbirds following our heroine, walking alone at night in strange neighborhoods. She conjures through her painterly poetics the kind of pure loneliness that’s all the more exhilarating. Scary because her voice simply doesn’t leave your head — even though she’s singing stories that feel like deep wounds that are fingered unconsciously. Scary because the imagery is as strong as its delivery. Scary because Blacklisted represents Case not hitting her peak, but gaining her footing as a songwriter.

Here, she’s backed by some of her usual Boyfriends (Sadies, Shadowy Men from a Shadowy Planet, a couple New Pornographers), but she also has brought some new fellas to the studio. Howe Gelb (Giant Sand) and Joey Burns and John Convertino (Calexico) bring their trademark lonesome-desert longing to their accompaniment and it works disturbingly well with Case’s voice and compositions.

They call her an “alt-country crooner” sometimes, but that doesn’t cut it. That peg really only describes Case circa her debut album, The Virginian. Yeah, she works most apparently in the country idiom, but like her sometimes cohort and Bloodshot labelmate Kelly Hogan, Case swims deep in the river of American music. You’ll hear torch songs, rock ’n’ roll, pop (or is it pop classique?), folk and gospel and on and on.

And the character of her voice takes in more landscape than that. Weepy, growling, soaring, demanding, demure, bittersweet, snotty — they’re all bent to her will. Of course, “I Wish I Was the Moon” could have sprung from Dolly, Loretta, Peggy or Tammy. “Things That Scare Me,” the opener, could give Sixteen Horsepower’s David Eugene Edwards a run for his Southern Gothic money (seriously). But on tracks like “Look for Me (I’ll Be Around),” “Pretty Girls” and the title cut she’s crafted songs that are without a country, giving them life with a voice that’s without equal. Scary, indeed.

E-mail Chris Handyside at [email protected].

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