Live albums always turn out to be disappointing. At most, there will be one or two unreleased tracks, most of the live versions of songs won’t sound that different than the album versions and you have to put up with the sound of cheering fans, something that doesn’t quite have the same effect on record. If it weren’t for contractual obligations, I’d guess that most live albums wouldn’t be released. This, of course, isn’t true of every live album and there are some unique exceptions. And in the case of Neko Case’s The Tigers Have Spoken, had it not been for the crowd cheering and the press release telling me that it was a live album, I would have guessed it was recorded in the studio.
It’s amazing how good the recording quality is on The Tigers Have Spoken. There are minor blemishes here and there, and that’s what gives it its charm. But imperfections are scarce on this brief collection, which is one characteristic that truly sets it apart from the standard, run-of-the-mill live recording. Neko is backed by The Sadies on this record, a pairing that’s almost too perfect to believe. The Toronto group lends a fiery, upbeat sensibility to Neko’s otherwise dark, gothic Americana.
The other main thing about Tigers that keeps it from being lumped in with other mediocre live sets is that the selection of material consists mostly of unreleased tracks. The only prior-released Neko song on here is a version of “Blacklisted,” the original of which was released in 2002 on the album of the same name. Instead, we have three new Neko originals and seven covers, ranging from Buffy Sainte-Marie to Loretta Lynn to traditional folk tunes. The originals are, of course, the primary reason for listening. “If You Knew” is the most rocking song of the three, as The Sadies inject it with their trademark jangly guitar work. The title track and “Favorite” are somewhat slower, but no less exciting, as Case truly proves her worth as a classic songwriter. But the covers aren’t bad either. “Train From Kansas City” and “Loretta” are surfy rockabilly numbers that get things moving. But Case closes the set with a stunning rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger,” backed by the ideaCity03 Choir. This track is “semi-live” according to the inner sleeve, which makes sense, as it’s the least live-sounding song of the bunch.
The Tigers Have Spoken is a delightful surprise for fans of Neko Case, as it’s a few originals shy of being an official new album. That it was recorded live just makes it that much more impressive, for she and her Sadies clearly put on a good show, as the sound of their performance suggests. Few live albums are worth owning, if you ask me, but The Tigers Have Spoken is one of them.
Neko Case – Blacklisted
The Sadies – Precious Moments
Giant Sand – Covers Magazine
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.