Furnace Room Lullaby
Maybe it's a by-product of "artistic growth." Maybe it's just that some young women aren't satisfied with only singin' hard country music. Whatever the cause, Neko Case -- whose The Virginian was arguably the ultimate female country recording of 1998 -- has left the farm for a setting several shades less countrified. On Furnace Room Lullaby, echoes of Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and rejuvenated cowgrrrl fury have been replaced with nods to vintage power folk and soft country rock. Damn it.
Instead of coming through vocal winks and yee-hawed spine-tinglers, Case's astounding lead-crystal voice is now showcased in sluggish drama, atmospheric arrangements and enough reverb to drown the herd. Much of this recording swims in an ambient, echoed mix that deadens its punch. The rhythm section sounds as if someone has thrown a blanket over both the bass player and the drummer. The opening tune, "Set Out Running," wallows in a slow-to-move song structure and distant instruments that emphasize Case's vocals but leave holes in the music, while prairie-wind backing vocals only muddy the picture further. "Guided by Wire" calls to mind the softened folk of the Mamas & the Papas and the standardized twang of too many long-haired '70s wannabe cowboy acts. "Porchlight" leaves Case in the dark, elbowing through curtains of gossamer choruses and syrupy acoustic guitars. "Mood to Burn Bridges," one of the disc's ventures into boot-stomping terrain, achieves at least part of its boast but suffers from drive-killing breaks.
Collectively, these tunes make for stirring late-night mood music, and there's no denying Case's wondrous instrument. But they disappoint those craving Case's former cattle-driving sound. Lullaby is not without shining moments; they surface in such steamy numbers as "No Need to Cry" and in the aching sweep of "Twist the Knife" and "We've Never Met." The comfy balladry of "Thrice All American" also delivers a good mule kick, as does the twangled-up-in-blue "Bought & Sold" and "Whip the Blankets." But the few touches of C&W swagger here get drowned out by so much slow-motion theater. Like any artist, Case has the right -- hell, maybe the duty -- to trade the turf of past records for new terrain. And it's a thrill to hear such fleshy singing in any context. But that doesn't mean we can't cry about her change in tune. -- Marty Jones