NEKO CASE with the HIGH DIALS at the Danforth Music Hall (147 Danforth), Sunday (April 2), doors 7 pm. $32.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
It's hard to sustain a cellphone connection when you're running with the wolves. That's what I learn while trying to chat with country-gothic siren Neko Case, who's leading a pack of beasts through the wilds of a Washington dog park as she chats with me on her staticky mobile.
Today, Case is accompanied by her primary partner, Lloyd - a rescued greyhound who, she says, is "too damn lazy to play with the cutest, scruffiest little dog in the park."
Her choice of companions seems entirely appropriate considering the whiskered wolves, foxes, lions, cats and other fauna lurking in the corners of nearly every bloodied tale on Case's fab new Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (Mint) disc.
Compared to the more straightforward country music archetypes Case explored on her earlier discs, her convoluted Fox confessions sound like the work of someone who's gone feral and sleeps with antlers above her bed.
"I finally just let myself go for it," says Case. "We need new stories for which we don't know the answers. It's like going to see a David Lynch movie. People get pissed cuz they can't figure out what the hell it's all about. I want things to be more dark and nebulous."
The non-linear cryptic narratives have been dissed for not conforming to Patsy Cline-style paradigms. Case delivers the stories in sudden flashes - a drive past flooded fields becomes a prostration before a Ukrainian folk symbol; her true love dies in a puddle of oil, before bloodied denim and thermoses of glass surface in the next line.
She can connect a straightforward tune like Margaret Vs. Pauline, based on a kids' short story about jealousy between best friends (one wealthy, one poor) to her own experience trying to reconcile her rock-star celebrity with her underprivileged childhood.
"When I read the book as a child, I totally missed the point. The narrator hated Margaret so much, but it was because he secretly wished he could be more like her. She cared for people on the fringes whom he dismissed as dirty. And, yeah," she continues, "that theme of fate choosing favourites... there's a lot of me in there, and a lot of people I know."
That complex approach extends to the disc's meticulously layered sound, which Case co-produced with long-time collaborator Darryl Neudorf.
It can produce a remarkably evocative aesthetic - check the soaring Roy Orbison swoop of the plaintive doo-wop ballad That Teenage Feeling - but occasionally it works to her disadvantage.
The constant use of reverb muddies up her stunning vocals. At times it's gorgeous, but after 12 echoey tracks, you start to wonder whether she's trying to cover something up that doesn't need covering.
"I've heard the album so many times that I can't even hear my own voice any more. It's like a blackout."
Case dances around the question of whether the reverb is her strategy to avoid having to hear herself sing.
"I like the sound of old production, where you can hear the room. We used natural reverb on the album, and also gold foil reverb, which is a production trick that makes something sound almost more real, as if I were singing in a theatre where you could hear sound echoing off the walls."
But later, Case accidentally admits she doesn't like the sound of her voice "when it's really dry and doesn't have that old-production sound."
She'd better confront it soon, though, as the release of Fox Confessor on Anti- , home of Nick Cave and Tom Waits, has set off a juggernaut of breakout buzz and TV talk show appearances that Case will probably end up catching in reruns in hotel rooms while decompressing after shows on tour.
During the media rounds for this disc, Case chose to invite numerous American scribes into her home.
It seems like a curious - and possibly ill-advised - choice. She did, after all, win the Playboy readers poll in the Sexiest Woman In Indie Rock category a few years back, and I can't help but worry she's setting herself up for stalkers.
"Luckily, I don't really live anywhere at the moment," she says tersely. "I live in Chicago, but I'm never really there, and besides, all the ladies I know in bands have problems with people.
"The Playboy thing? You'd like to just laugh it off, but the North American media had a field day with it. I wouldn't do interviews about it, so people started making up lies."
She sighs. "I guess it's ultimately good if people are making up lies about you in America, right?"