Neko Case and Johnny Dowd at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), Sunday (January 16), 6 pm. $17.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Given a choice of options, Neko Case will inevitably take the most difficult path and stubbornly pursue it to the bitter end, whatever the cost.
Even when it appears Case is doing something the easy way, she has a knack for turning a potentially simple task into a five-alarm ordeal. Murphy has nothing on her.
So despite the logistical challenge posed by her plan to record The Tigers Have Spoken live onstage at three venues in different countries, performing new songs and covers that hadn't yet been road-tested, she was convinced the project would be a snap. And there was no use trying to tell the headstrong singer/songwriter otherwise.
Somewhere between the shows at Lee's Palace and at Schuba's in Chicago, it occurred to Case that there'd be a lot more involved in the process than hitting the record button after the introduction. The resulting album is a fabulous document of her magnificent voice and increasing skill as an interpretive stylist, but the painstaking process nearly killed her.
"Uh-huh," chuckles Case on her cellphone. "I thought I was s-o-o-o-o-o smart. Oh my god, what a ballbuster! The one word I'd use to describe the whole experience is humbling. I'll probably do some live recording, but definitely not for a while."
And don't count on seeing Case's forthcoming studio album any time soon. Although she's been working on it for most of the past year and has 11 songs ready to be mixed here in Toronto over the two weeks following her Sunday show accompanied by the Sadies, it's unlikely that she'll meet the spring 2005 street date initially set. Even summer seems optimistic.
"It should be out by early fall," offers Case, and then adds, "hopefully."
So what's the holdup? Well, a power outage in Tucson, where the sessions with members of the Sadies and Calexico were taking place, cost them four days. But more than ever before there seems to be some real truth in that good-natured jab scratched into the run-out groove of her Make Your Bed (Bloodshot) single that read, "Neko is a fusspot."
"While I'm in Toronto mixing, I'm going to be working on three more songs with the Sadies. I hope I can convince them to come Tucson to record them in March.
"There are really only three songs that are finished, so the album could still go in any number of different directions. I really like what we've done so far, but it's sounding a little too lovely for my liking. That's bugging me right now.
"I enjoy when things sound orchestral and large, but I'm trying to create a little more space and dynamics this time. I'd like the new album to be not quite as thick-sounding as Blacklisted. And maybe a little more upbeat."
As I recall, Case said exactly the same thing about wanting to have more space in her music while working on Blacklisted. But she's the sort of person who can't rest until all 24 tracks are filled with something - anything.
"I don't ever try to make use of every last track, but we usually do. If you have an open track available, I think it's better to take a chance and try an idea that might work instead of just saying 'Let's not' and leaving it as it is.
"I'd like to go back and strip away some parts, but when I hear something played really well, it's hard for me to remove it."
Fortunately, she has no intention of deleting any of the piano and organ passages contributed by Garth Hudson. The legendary Band keyboardist, last heard enlivening Norah Jones's Feels Like Home album, dropped in on the Tucson sessions and wound up playing on five songs.
"He's the most kind, fascinating and hilarious person I've ever met, besides knowing more about music than anyone.
"I didn't give him any direction other than saying, 'Just play whatever you want,' and he came up with these gospel-style piano and organ parts that are amazing, of course. You hear what he plays and immediately you know it's Garth Hudson. Nobody else sounds like him.
"That was probably the greatest recording experience of my life."