Concert albums are often dodgy affairs, tarted up by studio wizards to sound much better, crisper, cleaner and richer than it is ever possible to achieve in a strictly live recording. Mistakes are faded out, enthusiastic applause is faded in, subterfuge is everywhere. More often than not, these live recordings are made to fulfill contractual obligations, not because they present a genuinely unique listening experience. What's worse is that they almost never offer anything new. Just a passel of favorite songs that all culminate with the roar of a crowd.
So there is justifiable trepidation when any artist, even one as estimable as rough-and-tumble singer Neko Case, decides to go the live album route. After all, she has just three full-length CDs to her credit and the last one came out two years ago. Surely she has more to present to us than a 35-minute collection of concert performances?
But Case fans need not fear. With "The Tigers Have Spoken," her first album for the Anti- record label, Case has put forth an imaginatively stripped-down affair that is all rough edges and dark beauty. With the able backing of the alt-country band the Sadies and an assortment of musician friends, including Jon Rauhouse, Kelly Hogan and Carolyn Mark, the 34-year-old Case takes listeners on a revealing 11-song journey. By turns mournful and bristling, spare and majestic, it is that rare breed of live album that actually captures the essence of the artist.
There are a couple of new songs, including the opener, "If You Knew," a glorious, haunting track that sounds disconcertingly like Grace Slick singing a country song and may well be the best song Case has ever written. The powerful and melodic title track is also new and, like the best of Case's songs, is evocative and moving on several levels.
In addition to four of her own songs, the choice of a number of very different covers does more to explain Case and the various directions she has taken her career as a singer. You can hear echoes of the Velvet Underground on her furiously rocking, guitar-driven rendition of the Nervous Eaters' "Loretta." She pumps the Shangri-Las' "The Train From Kansas City" for all of its blustery beauty. And on Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Soulful Shade of Blue," Case brings out all of the song's heartsick angst. But none of the covers seems better suited to her Grand Canyon of a voice than her rambunctious take on Loretta Lynn's "Rated X."
The album closes with a pair of nontraditional versions of traditional songs. "This Little Light" is a genial spiritual hymn in most hands, but Case and company's hellbilly rendition takes it nearly into punk territory. It's certainly not a version anyone learns in Sunday school, but it possesses a religious intensity all the same. "Wayfaring Stranger," the final song, incorporates a chorus sung by the crowd at one of the live venues where Case made these recordings, and it, too, is made to sound refreshingly new and full of life. It's a gem of a conclusion to a CD that just may give live albums a good name again.