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Thursday, June 15, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Country singer Neko Case is movin' on

Seattle Times staff reporter

There was a country singer

Who lived in the Shoe

She had so much attention

So why is she so blue?

Most of us focus our petty piques on a single person. The Boss. The Tailgater. The Ex-. The Parent. The Meter Maid.

Not so for Neko Case. The simmering rage of Case - the Northwest's most acclaimed singer-songwriter since Elliott Smith - is so big, so profound, it takes on an entire city. Seattle.

A gray afternoon in late April found Case just returned here from Austin's South by Southwest music festival. There, the country singer who looks like Nicole Kidman's tough little sister received glowing reviews of her showcase. She could stack those notices on top of the glowing reviews (Interview, Esquire, Magnet, Entertainment Weekly, Time, even People) of her second album, "Furnace Room Lullaby."

Yet over lunch in Belltown, Case was hardly bubbly. Sulking about Seattle, her mood ranged between jaded and snide, and she only grew excited when talking about moving to Chicago. She was eager to pack up her things from Pioneer Square's Washington Shoe Building - which she and other artists had been forced to evacuate in the name of renovation - shake the implosion dust from her boots and ride out of town.

"This city doesn't support artists," she grumbled. "All it cares about is money."

(Case, a drummer in a punk-rock band before switching to country, said pretty much the same thing in April 24's Time magazine: "All there is in Seattle is money.")

One reason she picked Chicago is that Bloodshot Records, which releases her albums, is located there. But she sounded anxious to go anywhere - anywhere but here.

What would she miss about Seattle?

"Nothing," she said, without hesitation. "A few people," she added, almost reluctantly.

Then a sudden downpour whipping across Second Avenue caught her attention. "And the weather. I love the rain. I'll miss the weather. . . . "

Maybe that will eventually draw her back; the Northwest, after all, is in her blood. Born in Virginia, she spent her childhood and high school years in Tacoma, which she praises in her song "Thrice All American":

"I want to tell you about my hometown/ it's a dusty old jewel in the south Puget Sound. . . . People they laugh/ when they hear you're from my town/ they say it's a sour and used-up old place/ I defended its honor/ and shrugged off the put-downs/ I found passion for life/ in Tacoma. . . ."

This month, Case is back in the Northwest. She performed at an invitation-only Experience Music Project show at I-Spy on June 8, and will help open EMP with a free concert on June 24. In between, she had plans to pick up a few shifts at Hattie's Hat, the Ballard restaurant that's an onion-ring toss away from the Tractor Tavern, where she has performed several times.

Why did she want to go back to her old kitchen gig?

"Because I'm (really) broke." (As it turned out, this week, instead of working at the restaurant, Case was in New York for a photo shoot).

But what about all the great reviews of her two records (her first was 1998's "The Virginian")?

"That doesn't have anything to do with record sales. All that means is I have good publicists."

Like many artists, Neko (pronounced nee-ko) Case is a study in contradictions. Cocksure on the top, insecure at heart. Classic country style, post-punk attitude.

She's got a heavenly voice, and a gutter mouth.

"I'm going to try not to swear too much, because my family's here," she said at her last Seattle show, an April 1 concert at the Tractor Tavern.

The Ballard club was sold out for the Case show, but the singer hardly enjoyed her homecoming. She said she probably had too much to drink before performing, repeatedly grumbled about not being able to hear herself, constantly apologized - "I'm sorry I sound terrible."

Few there would have agreed with that.

When singing, she was poignant and heart-rending, an aching sincerity that brought a buzzing crowd to a startled hush. Between songs, she was an acerbic clown, ranting about how her ex-boyfriend's new flame had called to praise her album. "Sure - steal my boyfriend, then let's do lunch!"

As usual, there is tragedy beneath the comedy. Case poured her feelings of anger and heartbreak out into her new album. At the Tractor, Case sang her new album's first track, "Set Out Running," a raw look at a hit-and-dump relationship:

"I can't be myself without you/ want to crawl down deep inside/ the springs inside my chestwell/ cry my dirty secrets/ I just can't shake this feeling/ that I'm nothing in your eyes. . . . "

Later at the Tractor, Case's rhythmic voice was set to a pretty melody for another brutal heartbreak song, "Twist the Knife":

"Tenderly, tenderly/ please take my breath from me . . . tearfully, joyfully/ burn what is left of me. . . . You'll be my guest/ and I'll let you stay/ leave me the check/ I'll pay with/ the rest of my life. . . ."

All the great reviews in the world can't mend a broken heart, so maybe that's part of the reason Case needed to leave the Northwest for a fresh start. Whatever her reasons, this crusty young jewel from the south Puget Sound was itching to pack up her newly purchased vehicle and hit the road.

"All I need is my truck to make me happy," she said, with a sneering smile. "I don't need a boyfriend, don't need a house. Just a truck."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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