In the early years of alternative rock, country music was the antithesis of all things indie. Hip kids wouldn't touch it -- the tunes were too corny, too earnest, too tragically lacking in irony. Then Uncle Tupelo and Wilco arrived, lacerating their homespun roots with noise and attitude, and cocky country insurgent Ryan Adams, who made it swagger, and garage-rock guru Jack White, who hitched his wagon to country queen Loretta Lynn.
All of which is to say the cultural petri dish is primed for a talent like Neko Case: She started in punk, moonlights in the indie-pop supergroup New Pornographers, and releases her fifth country CD today.
''Fox Confessor Brings the Flood" is as enigmatic as its title. Happily, it's not nearly as precious. The album opens with a gentle, toxic character study (''Margaret Vs. Pauline"), segues into a brassy waltz about a grisly auto crash (''Star Witness"), and continues with a twangy love letter to the devil (''Hold on, Hold on"), one of several collaborations with Canadian duo the Sadies. There isn't a chorus to be heard among the 12 tracks, and despite the gorgeous chords and melodies, Case's tunes never settle. ''That Teenage Feeling" comes closest to conventional sentiment, with it's swooning, vintage-pop pledge to hold out for romance that thrills. But her best efforts are thrown out of whack by a disobedient electric guitar that races and totters, unreliable as a young girl's heart.
This is, it hardly needs noting, a dark collection of songs, and Case has assembled a pitch-perfect assortment of musicians to color the album's mash of classic torch, haunted folk, and creepy country in the restless, dusty shades they require: among them Joey Burns and John Convertino of the Arizona collective Calexico, Giant Sand's Howe Gelb, Garth Hudson from the Band -- whose surprising keyboard parts are a joy throughout -- and the eclectic Georgia singer Kelly Hogan.
Case is a natural-born storyteller: a lover of verse, endowed with a lush, gutsy voice and emotional depth. By the middle of ''Maybe Sparrow," Case's throat is scorched with remorse for the dead bird who didn't heed her warning. But these dense fragments -- filled with mysterious snapshots of floods and widows, dirty knives and raging fevers, '69 Falcons and John the Baptist -- aren't exactly relatable. They're better than that: standards from the fringe, timeless and peculiar, and testament to Case's ever-deepening skills as a songwriter. Don't expect to sing along, or summarize. Just soak it up.
Neko Case will perform at the Roxy on April 5.