Neko Case spins alt-country tunes into "Cyclone"

NEW YORK (Billboard) - If you ask Neko Case why her 2006 album “Fox Confessor Bring the Flood” sold so many copies -- 194,000 in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- the singer-songwriter will tell you that she didn’t have much to do with it.

To Case, her sales success wasn’t the result of her incessant touring or her longstanding membership in indie rock heavyweight the New Pornographers. Her label was a bigger factor.

“I would have to give a lot more credit to Anti- more than anything else,” she says. “They really followed through.”

Chicago indie Bloodshot released Case’s first three solo albums. The last, 2002’s “Blacklisted,” wound up outselling the New Pornographers’ next album, 2003’s “Electric Version,” 113,000 to 111,000.

After some major-label courting, Case signed with Anti- in 2004. “I’ve learned how to take it to a certain level,” she admits. “But there are certain things, like marketing, that I don’t understand.”

Enter Anti- general manager Dave Hansen, who cites the label’s strong relationship with independent retailers as the initial focal point for “Fox Confessor.” The album started selling better after it got positive reviews, Case made several TV appearances, and Starbucks began carrying the title five months after its release.

Case is now in the rare position of straddling two niche markets. The music she makes as a solo artist is rootsy and twangy, attracting followers of acts like Wilco and Neil Young. But her work with the New Pornographers appeals to a younger, college-age crowd that favors pop hooks and Case’s trademark harmonies with Carl Newman.

“Middle Cyclone,” which is due March 3, stands to become Case’s most high-profile album to date. The artist is joined on the project by guest musicians such as Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino, M. Ward and the Band’s Garth Hudson. She dips into the covers well with versions of Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” and Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth.”

Other tracks include the winding piano ballad “Vengeance Is Sleeping,” where Case examines unrequited love from a male perspective; “Prison Girls,” which has a Tex-Mex arrangement; and “Magpie in the Morning,” which showcases her crystal clear voice.

“It’s heavily influenced by being in the New Pornographers,” Case says of the album. “I’m sure I wouldn’t have made those poppy choruses if I didn’t have that addiction feeling of singing harmonies with other people.”

This spring, Case will return to the road, playing a mix of clubs and theaters in North America.

But as Case’s audience has grown, so too, she says, have the challenges of the recording process. “Your vocabulary and your ability to recognize sonic differences is greater, because you have that experience,” she says. “I used to think that if you had that experience, it would get easier. But it’s like ‘Donkey Kong.’ The levels just keep going up and up and up.”