Sweetheart's dance

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There's a convenient cliché spat out by folks who either don't know what kind of music really stirs their soul or just happily accept the pabulum doled out over the airwaves. When they're asked what kind of music they enjoy, it usually goes a little like this: "I like everything -- except rap and country." Try it some time.

The country they're referring to is usually the Tim McGraw-Alan Jackson-Shania Twain-Nash Vegas country, built for young executives, suburban housewives and dulled pop music imaginations. The bands that populate the roots-and-folk-born "insurgent country" are the furthest things from the minds of good sport utility-driving music consumers. Yet it's these artists, not the mass-produced spew, who are broadening musical horizons and convincing audiences of the axiom "if you don't like country music, you haven't heard good country music."

Toronto-via-Tacoma-via-Virginia singer-songwriter-musician/true country sweetheart Neko Case is an excellent case in point. Her debut full-length CD, The Virginian (released in the States by Chicago's Bloodshot Records), is a collection of alternately rambunctious and heart-breaking songs recorded with a mixed-gender band dubbed Neko Case's Boyfriends. It's a recording that hits you in that area of the brain reserved for moments of giddy revelations that you couldn't possibly prepare for or resist. In The Virginian, the heartbreak abandon of "Timber," the intimate ache of "Lonely Old Lies" and the punk vibe of "Karoline," introduce you to a multifaceted artist who truly appreciates the entire musical family tree in which she's built her house. And it all sprang from a musician previously known for rocking the drums in the Vancouver, B.C., punk trio Maow.

"I had a whole bunch of songs I had written and I asked the folks at Mint (the Canadian label that originally released The Virginian) to put them out. I didn't have a demo tape or anything, they just trusted me," says Case of this project's beginnings. The album is more than a mere ironic homage to country music or a one-time knock-off. Case is both serious and seriously gifted. Her voice recalls Patsy Cline, Wanda Jackson (whom she lists among her favorite artists), the anonymous voices of Appalachian folk music and more. Case's songs sound somehow familiar, but they're presented with an enthusiasm for the style and performances that hint at the true, deep connection between the common DIY aspects of punk's spirit (if not its chord changes) and roots country. And, while Case may remind listeners of her idols, her voice is singular -- rhythmic and punchy when need be, angelic and empathetic when called for.

Of the transition from behind the kit to the leader of the band: "I'm better at singing than I am at playing drums," she says, and she jokes, "It was pretty hard not holding anything."

As the awareness and word-of-mouth praise surrounding The Virginian and Neko Case has grown, so has Case's confidence and singing ability. What began as just a bunch of songs running around in a musician's head has evolved into a gift of music that, in a better world, would fill the airwaves and the arenas. But, you know, it's probably best suited for the bar dance floor anyway. Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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