Album of the Week, May 17: Furnace Room Lullaby by Neko Case and Her Boyfriends

NekoFurnaceCoverNeko Case was born in Alexandria, VA in 1970. Her mother and stepfather moved frequently, and she lived in several states before settling in Tacoma, WA, which she considers her hometown. She left home at 15, drumming in local punk and alt-country bands while finishing school. She moved to Vancouver, BC in 1994 to pursue a fine arts degree and continued drumming and occasionally singing. When she graduated, she moved to Seattle and began a musical career in earnest. Her debut album, 1997’s The Virginian, found her crediting her collaborators as “and Her Boyfriends”. Case presented a strong set of original songs and smart covers, all delivered in a honky-tonk vein that earned her comparisons to Patsy Cline and Wanda Jackson. Three years later, she put together a second Boyfriends album, the stunning Furnace Room Lullaby.

Title Furnace Room Lullaby
Act Neko Case and Her Boyfriends
Label Bloodshot Release Date February 22, 2000
Producer Neko Case and Darryl Neudorf
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Set Out Running
  2. Guided By Wire
  3. Porchlight
  4. Mood to Burn Bridges
  5. No Need to Cry
  6. Twist the Knife
  7. Thrice All American
  8. We’ve Never Met
  9. Whip the Blankets
  10. South Tacoma Way
  11. Bought and Sold
  12. Furnace Room Lullaby

The country influences are still there, but honky-tonk is blended into a sort of “country noir” that set the stage for the singer’s future work. With a powerful voice, just a little twang, 12 great songs, and a sympathetic batch of collaborators, Neko Case made her first powerful statement.

Set Out Running is an appropriate title for the album’s launching point. A classic bad romance song, it showcases all of Case’s skills and sets a tone of independence and vulnerability that resonate throughout the disc. Guided By Wire is a stirring ode to the power of music featuring a nice vocal by John Ramberg. On Porchlight, singer Kelly Hogan provides a haunting vocal that works seamlessly with Case’s. It’s a track of yearning and loss, with the light burning far away offering faint hope in the distance.

On Mood to Burn Bridges Case brings back the honky-tonk, giving a gritty performance that makes it clear she will take no prisoners. It’s a great, high energy song and one of the disc’s standouts. Things get quieter on No Need to Cry, a sweet country ballad with hushed instrumentation. It sounds like a 50s Country classic and shows off Case’s power at any volume. Twist the Knife is a torchy regret song that caps off this alt-country triad with class.

Case pays tribute to her oft-maligned hometown on Thrice All American. She’s not blind to Tacoma’s faults, but she knows that home is a powerful thing and respects everything the city gave her. We Never Met is another country-tinged weeper, saved from being maudlin by the glorious vocals and nice fiddle figure. Case gets energetic again on Whip the Blankets, a raunchy raver that shows off another side of the talented musician. It’s one of the highlights of the album.

South Tacoma Way invokes the city again, this time as a setting rather than tribute. It’s a quiet, affecting song that shows of the great sequencing on this album. Bought and Sold is the last of the classic country songs on the disc, a great song of loss and regret that makes particularly fine use of Case’s range. The album ends with the creepy title song, a dark, elliptical story of something gone wrong. It’s a masterpiece of country noir and one of the finest vocal performances Case has ever turned in. Confined to the furnace room perhaps, but evoking wide open spaces and an aching need, it’s a brilliant song that encapsulates everything wonderful about this great album.

FURTHER LISTENING: Since she abandoned the Boyfriends identity, Case has become an alt-roots superstar. She’s worked regularly with the New Pornographers and the Sadies while building a sterling solo career. Her amazing voice is at the center of all her work, but her musical smarts and great collaborators are also part of the fun of every outing.

All of the albums that bear her name are worthwhile. The Virginian is the most country of the set, making it the most constricted but also a fun look at where she comes from. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is the best, most consistent disc, with Middle Cyclone coming in a close second, suffering only from a bit of sameness. The brief live disc The Tigers Have Spoken is a smart set without a dud that features an array of guests that includes most of Her Boyfriends.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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