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Nashville Scene Live to Tell

Neko Case's arty, and artful, take on country music

By Michael McCall

MARCH 28, 2000:  On the cover of her second album, Furnace Room Lullaby, Neko Case lies sprawled on a concrete floor. Her eyes are glassy, and her body is twisted around in an unnatural position, as if she's been shoved to the ground violently or has fallen forward in a narcotic stupor. It's an unsettling image that traffics in danger and mystery.

Case's music carries the same impact Stomping and howling through a rough set of rocking honky-tonk and damaged torch songs, she tears through country music conventions like a mad gale blowing through a barroom, spilling drinks, mussing hair, and pushing the wrong people into each other's arms.

But if her CD cover conveys a distant obliqueness--which could be read as a modernist's intellectual aloofness--Case's songs avoid such posturing and instead connect with the self-revelatory tradition of the best country songwriting. With a potent voice that owns all the torch and twang of such insurgent forebears as Maria McKee and Joy Lynn White, Case doesn't settle for white-trash rave-ups or coy twists on familiar country themes. In a series of dead-serious songs about personal tribulations, she seizes the melodrama of classic honky-tonk and gives it a personal spin and an unrestrained, punkish push.

In effect, Case crosses the artsy, theatrical side of alternative rock with country's history of wronged females who wail in pain and fight for dignity. If Brenda Lee had her heart broken by Nick Cave, she'd sound like Neko Case. And by daring to tell her own story, Case delivers a series of heartrending personal tunes that reveal the torrid truth about what happens when a woman loves too hard and too recklessly.

On Furnace Room Lullaby, the singer's mix-and-match collection of alternative-country collaborators sometimes fails her, but her songs and her voice rarely do. More often than not, her passionate performance inflicts the damage intended. She establishes her point of view quickly: "Set Out Running," the album's first song, finds her trying to relocate her self-identity after an explosive breakup. "The springs inside the mattress will cry my dirty secrets," she wails. Based on this line alone, it's clear that Case is willing to risk exposing herself in a way that few Nashville country singers would even dare.

Even though she spent the mid-'90s playing drums in Maow, a pop-punk trio from Vancouver, her connection to country music is an honest one. Now 29 years old, Case shares Patsy Cline's birthday (Sept. 8) and filmmaker David Lynch's hometown (Alexandria, Va.), and she owns some of the sensibilities of each.

When she released her 1997 debut, The Virginian, the singer wrote an essay sent out by her record companies--Mint Records in Canada and Bloodshot Records in the United States--detailing her interest in country music's past. She cited Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton as role models, saying she was drawn to their music because they were "strong, down-to-earth, tell-it-like-it-is women." Case also wanted to make it clear that she didn't like the term "alternative country" because it gets used by people who are afraid that being a plain, simple country singer isn't hip enough. "I play country music because I love it," she wrote. "It's not a stab at being retro or campy, it's a heartfelt and sincere effort."

Furnace Room Lullaby benefits from her genuine approach to songwriting, but her music doesn't hide the fact that she's a former art student who left home at age 15 because of what she has described as "family problems." It's this mix of earthiness and artiness, simplicity and complexity, that makes "Thrice All American," her sincere homage to Tacoma, Wash., so effective. Case, who recently relocated to Chicago, has lived off-and-on in Tacoma since her youth, and her reflections on why she loves this "sour and used up" old factory town are as personal and as complicated as similarly bittersweet tributes by The Pogues and Tom Waits. "There was no hollow promise that life would reward you," she sings, "there was nowhere to hide in Tacoma."

"Guided By Wire," one of the best songs on Furnace Room Lullaby, talks about the important role music has played in Case's life, and how her sanity has often been saved by hearing "someone singing my life back to me." Here, Case balances disclosures about her screwed-up love life ("I could never choose the ones to love/And the ones who took the credit left me reeling") with direct yet artful lines about how songs pull her through ("Guided by the voices I've deflected/Guided by your electric wire's hum").

The album's weaker moments mostly fall to the musical performances. "Porchlight," a wistful ballad that should sound as wide open as a Western prairie, never quite achieves a romantic mystery to match Case's powerful vocal. Similarly, the Peggy Lee-like "No Need to Cry" loses its midnight moodiness because of slipshod instrumentation and a gauzy electronic effect on Case's voice. The band also stumbles while trying to cram together a waltz and a noir shuffle in "Mood to Burn Bridges."

Still, Furnace Room Lullaby slips mostly from low-budget problems rather than any artistic miscalculation. Case's songs repeatedly wield an impact. Her voice is a marvel, a freeborn instrument strong enough to follow her unhinged instincts, and it's what gets the most attention. But her writing deserves attention too; throughout these songs, she comes up with stunning couplets as well as an impressive range of stylistic conceits. "Twist the Knife," for example, uses an old-school song form to create a wholly modern statement that explores why someone continually sets herself up to be hurt. "Carefully, quietly, you took what's young from me/You didn't deserve it, I gave it away," she sings, and by the next line she's willing to give it back to him again.

On Furnace Room Lullaby, Case is giving it away too--recklessly, wildly, honestly, and, yes, artfully. You get the feeling she lets herself loose in her music just as she has in her relationships. In doing so, she pays back what she got from Lynn, Parton, and other influences. In revealing herself as she does, she's also passing those lessons along. This time, she's the one making the electric wires hum.

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