Thursday, October 29, 2020

CD Odyssey Disc 1418: Neko Case

Every now and then the COVID pandemic rises up to punch you in a new an unexpected place.

This week, it was the news that one of my neighbourhood pubs, Logan’s, was closing. I only went there infrequently, but over the years I made some great memories there and seen some great bands. What I was most struck by was how the place could look so gritty and tough from the outside, but be populated with genuine, lovely people (patrons and staff) once you worked up the nerve to go in. Please spare a kind thought to a whole bunch of people now looking for work in a time where it is tough to find any.

In sharing memories of Logan’s, a friend of mine noted he’d seen Neko Case there many years ago, so it is fitting the Odyssey should randomly serve up one of her early albums for my next review.

Disc 1418 is…. Furnace Room Lullaby

Artist: Neko Case & Her Boyfriends

Year of Release: 2000

What’s up with the Cover? Neko lies on the floor of…the furnace room? This looks less like a lullaby and more like a murder scene. Or maybe there is nothing nefarious going on at all. She just went to check on why the heat wasn’t working, fell down the stairs and broke her neck. I believe this would be a case of being “drop-dead” beautiful, but don’t worry – it’s only pretend.

How I Came To Know It: I discovered Case a little over ten years ago, and began digging through her back catalogue. “Furnace Room Lullaby” was one of the gems I unearthed in the process.

How It Stacks Up: I have nine Neko Case albums. I’ll put “Furnace Room Lullaby” at #4, bumping the ungainly named “The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight. The Harder I Fight, the More I Love You” down one. That record is good but falls just short in the arbitrary game of comparisons we’re playing here.

Ratings: 4 stars

Sometimes the best thing about the evolution of an artist is that moment where they are still mid-mutation. Neko Case’s second album, “Furnace Room Lullaby” still inhabits a lot of the same rockabilly vibe present on 1997’s “The Virginian” but it also shows the beginnings of her move toward the more blues-tinged indie folk-rock that defines her later sound.

Old school crooners like “We’ve Never Met” and the rockabilly jump of “Mood to Burn Bridges” are both equally at home here, but we’re also treated to the ethereal “Porchlight” which features Case singing in a beautiful falsetto. Mixed in with the easy power of her lower register, you get a song that is laden with both ghostly yearning and old-fashioned heartbreak.

And speaking of that easy power, “Furnace Room Lullaby” is once again a showcase of Case’s incredible vocal talent. She drops big brassy notes that fill a room on every song, and many tunes hold a moment where Case’s voice soars so high you’ll swear time is suspended, or maybe just wish it was. On “Twist the Knife” when she sings:

“Tenderly, tenderly
Please take my breath from me”
Into the fountains
And up from the graves”

Her vocals are the living embodiment of that knife twist, stabbed into you in a peal of longing. The record has a lot of songs where her voice tears through your vitals it hurts, but as Case reveals on “Bought and Sold”, “nobody said that love was gonna be kind.”

The musicianship on “Furnace Room Lullaby” is also exceptional. The rockabilly flavoured tunes rely on energetic playing that hangs right at the front edge of the pocket, and Case’s backing band, “the Boyfriends” are up to the task. They also show a lot of depth and subtlety on the slower tunes and know when to take a back seat in service to the song.

The best song on the record (and my favourite Neko Case song of all time) is “Thrice All American.” It is a rust-stained love letter to the run-down neighbourhoods of Tacoma, Washington. This is a song about being from somewhere and how even if you don’t love that somewhere, the grudging admission that it still helps define you. 

Thrice All American” is the epicenter of the record, a bit of a country sway underpinning a bittersweet folk song of tortured love. Ultimately, it’s just another song among many about a relationship that didn’t work out - in this case, a town - but through Case’s artistry it becomes a steely lullaby, turning a rough world beautiful. If you like those kind of lullabies, then this furnace room is for you.

Best tracks: Guided By Wire, Porchlight, Twist the Knife, Thrice All American, Bought and Sold

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