In one of life’s great injustices, Bloodshot Records’ output is often dismissed by contemporary country music fans as not being “real” country… As if the bland, artistically barren future landfill contents currently coming out of Nashville are somehow more “real” than an honest, rootsy effort yanked directly from an obscure artist’s soul.
But sometimes they’ve got a point, almost. The link between the “insurgent country” of the Waco Brothers and the world of Johnny, Hank et al is far more of an aesthetic than an audible similarity.
Neko Case has altered the dynamic. Furnace Room Lullaby sounds like country music. Not contemporary country, either, but the country music of Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris, Tanya Tucker and even Patsy Cline, with a teency-weency smidgen of Hope Sandoval thrown in for indie rock cred (and a few hints—see “Porchlight” and “South Tacoma Way”—that Case might have a Sarah McLachlan album or two stashed in the closet behind her old cowboy boots). Contemporary rock flourishes are present, but it takes a few listens to catch them; for the first few spins, you’ll be caught up in the twang. It’s a guitar-centric country sound that could sometimes use a bit more string-section action.
Backed by a solid ensemble that includes Ron Sexsmith, Kelly Hogan and members of the Sadies, Case belts out tales of heartbreak, betrayal and lost love. Her voice is sweet and sassy, innocent yet knowing—just the right mixture of girlish virtue and trashy excess. A veteran of punk and country-punk bands, Case has never sounded more confident in the spotlight, building on the flair of her debut, The Virginian, while refining her vocal skills.
In the end, it’s the music that almost betrays Case. Though lovingly written and expertly played, it’s sometimes a little too intricate, stealing attention from Case’s voice and the emotional impact it could easily carry. For her part, Case lurks too low in the mix and dodges opportunities to really let rip with the vocals—perhaps she’s not entirely confident with her voice yet, but she should be. A few stripped-down tracks, or even an a capella number, could be a show-stopper here.
Still, make no mistake, Furnace Room Lullaby is a rare and laudable thing—a Bloodshot album your parents and grandparents will want to borrow, and might not give back.