Neko Case is a beloved fixture of the alt-country scene, though her music defies such straightforward categorization. “The Tigers Have Spoken,” her first live album, is an eclectic mix of new Case originals, covers of country classics and a mere two songs she’s already released on studio albums. With the help of the Sadies, her backing band, she unites country with rock and even punk sensibilities. And though the songs are mostly all great choices, Case’s pained yet beautiful voice is her greatest asset.
Case rocks harder and louder here than on any previous solo album, supported by two electric guitars besides her own and backing vocalists which provide strong support. The rock setting suits Case well, differentiating the live album from her previous albums, and improving upon her own material.
Considering that improvement, it’s disappointing that she neither reworks more of her old songs nor introduces more new material.
But the four Case originals we do get are the high points of the album, particularly the two already-released songs. “Blacklisted,” from her excellent album of the same name, is dark and satisfying. It especially benefits from the color and depth of the Sadies. “Favorite” is also better than its original version, on “Canadian Amp.” Case’s haunting voice is nearly transcendent, especially when matched with such evocative lyrics: “Oh light,/ I thought you were golden,/ I thought you were white,/ caught you returning to the house you caught fire.”
“If You Knew,” the opening track, is a new song co-written by Case and the Sadies. Its lyrics are similarly elegant and suggestive, albeit difficult to decipher. Along with the two previously released tracks, this trio of original material displays Case at her finest.
The title of the album comes from the fourth Case original, “The Tigers Have Spoken,” which is built around a simple melody sung over a bright guitar line. The song tries to be both tragic and ironic, though the short song is over before there is even time to consider its import.
Many of the album’s songs suffer the problem of length, which is a relatively flattering problem. “Rated X” is a fast-paced and energetic cover of the Loretta Lynn classic, but just as its getting to its peak, it’s over. Its abrupt shortness robs the song of its potential
The straight-ahead country music on “The Tigers Have Spoken” returns Case to her roots as a singer-songwriter, especially recalling the sound of “Furnace Room Lullaby” (2000).
On her easy-going covers of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Soulful Shade of Blue” and the traditional “This Little Light,” Case’s electrifying voice raises the music above regular country fare. Nevertheless, they are rather forgettable, perhaps again due to their shortness.
“Hex,” a lengthier and less hurried tune, more successfully allows the listener to sink into its mood before its conclusion.
The final song on the album is the often-covered traditional folk classic “Wayfaring Stranger,” which has been done by everyone from Johnny Cash to Jack White of the White Stripes. Case gloriously transforms the song into something strikingly new and beautiful. What makes this version so special is the oddly-named ideaCity03 Choir, who add a remarkable poignancy to the famous chorus.
Case’s singing can make even the least interesting of melodies a pleasure to listen to. Her soaring voice commands attention and unites the various country and rock songs into a satisfactory and coherent whole.
Despite the shortness of the songs (and the album as a whole), the material is consistently good and oftentimes great. Perhaps the dearth of new music suggests that Case is saving her best material for her next studio album due next year, which wouldn’t be such a tragedy.