Classic Americana Albums: Neko Case “Furnace Room Lullaby”

Mint Records, 2000

Furnace Room Lullaby’ announces itself pretty quickly as “not your standard country album” with the front cover of Case stretched out on what appears to be a public toilet concrete floor like a corpse. Turn the cover over and she is squatting over the prostrate body of a man in a similar setting apparently robbing the contents of his wallet. A far cry from the carefully coiffured prom-queen shot that adorns her first album ‘The Virginian’.

This change in cover design also announces a move away from the straight-ahead alt-country of that first album towards something more personal, darker and experimental. The fantastic ‘flamethrower’ of a voice was still there, but with the honky-tonk twang turned down, but still very much there.  Let’s pause here to note that Case has one of the finest voices in Americana: the perfect balance between power and fragility. She can spear her target perfectly with a fierce vocal assault before breaking your heart a howl of vulnerability and desolation.

After ‘Furnace Room Lullaby’ Case left her loose collection of backing musicians, Her Boyfriends, behind and moved further into the Americana-noir field. But the Boyfriends are an important part of ‘Furnace Room Lullaby’ and all the songs are co-written by Case and, amongst others, Ron Sexsmith, Ryan Adams and The Sadies. Subsequent Case albums are very much solo efforts, this is more of a collaboration with some supremely talented musicians and writers.

The album opens with a new twist on the country heartbreak ballad ‘Set Out Running’ where Case states she wouldn’t have hung around for the heartbreak, but ‘I just can’t shake this feeling/That I’m nothing in your eyes’. The importance of music in our emotional lives is picked up in ‘Guided By Wire’ enunciating the missteps made in love and the realisation that ‘I owe much to the nameless and all the surrogates/Of those who’re singin’ my life back to me.

Some superb songs exploring the perils of love. But the mood changes to one of fierce defiance on ‘Mood To Burn Bridges’. Starting with a spare rockabilly riff as Case declares: ‘So many people live in my town/And mind to my business but none of their own/They’re all so happy now that I’ve done wrong/I’m surprised they don’t come up and thank me’. It is this spirited independence that encapsulates much of the rest of the record. ‘Thrice All American’ defends the honour of Tacoma, where she was raised, against those who would deride the fading industrial town: ‘People who built it they loved it like I do/There was hope in the trainyard of something inspired’. Ultimately, Case engages us in Tacoma’s defence and we are prepared to stand on the barricades with her to fend off Wal-Mart’s corporate march into the town.

Whip The Blankets’ celebrates a raw sexuality ‘’Cause I’m steeped in this pleasure/I snapped from my tether/The foundation may vibrate apart’ with forthright, upbeat joy. But listen carefully and there is something darker there.

There is a sense of nostalgia and loss haunting much of ‘Furnace Room Lullaby’ and in ‘South Tacoma Way’ that loss arises from personal grief as Case avoids the funeral putting on instead ‘the sweater you gave me’ as she ‘Couldn’t pay respects to a dead man/Your life was much more to me’. It is one of the most beautiful expressions of grieving I have heard.

The final track, ‘Furnace Room Lullaby’ itself, is Case’s attempt at a Louvin Brothers-style murder ballad, complete with spooky backing vocals courtesy of Kelly Hogan.

Case may have gone on to produce some astounding albums, but it is ‘Furnace Room Lullaby’ I return to demonstrating that deep understanding of the murky roots of country music, deep in the darker aspects of human experience and with a real ability to touch the soul.

About Peter Tomkins 33 Articles
What brought me here? The Mekons, The Men They Couldn't Hang, Weddings Parties Anything, Blyth Power, Husker Du, Johnny Cash, Uncle Tupelo, Old 97s, Jerry Lee Lewis, Son Volt, Steve Earle, Bill Monroe, Sarah Shook, and on and on.
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Thanks for reminding me why I love this album, one of the first Americana records I bought, so very much