Neko Case Falls Comfortably Into Role As Country Songstress

Sincere Furnace Room Lullaby proves former punk is a genuine country inheritor.

There's a certain amount of finality that comes with a murder ballad such as Neko Case's "Furnace Room Lullaby." The singer's lover is of course dead, and the singer herself likely to be condemned, either by society or her own demons.

But there's also a measure of emancipation in the tradition of singing calm songs about horrendous crimes, Case said.

"It's like [the singer is] free to tell the truth at that point — which is maybe what they'd been wanting all along," she said. " 'Yes, I killed so-and-so, this is why I did it. I don't have to pretend it's for any other reason. No amount of justifying will get me out of the situation now.' "

While Case's history as drummer for punk band Maow lent a slight air of novelty to her first country outing, The Virginian (1997), Furnace Room Lullaby demolishes any claims of carpetbagging. The 12-song disc, released in February, proves the 29-year-old singer is a true-blue inheritor of such traditional country greats as Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash.

Much of the new album — from the setting of the title track, to the location for the grim crime-scene cover art, to Case's own pinhole photography inside — was inspired by an actual heater room in her Vancouver, British Columbia, apartment.

"It had all the furnaces in it that had been there since the building was built," said Case, who graduated last year from Vancouver's Emily Carr College of Art and Design. "It's kind of a graveyard of furnaces. It really stimulated my imagination. It was an interesting room, it was very creepy."

While nothing on Furnace Room Lullaby is so haunting as the title track, the album is nonetheless marked by a sincere sense of loss, but one that often goes hand-in-hand with perseverance.

In the soaring opener, "Set Out Running" (RealAudio excerpt), the singer is left with heartache before she has a chance to make a preemptive split with her lover. In "Mood to Burn Bridges," she turns reflection on her mistakes into a threat for those who would toss off told-you-so's. Meanwhile, she professes her love for the city of Tacoma, Wash., on "Thrice All American."

While her songs — mostly collaborations with members of Her Boyfriends, who back her on the disc — abound with sharp details and images, it's Case's rich, emotional delivery of the pieces that makes them linger in the ear.

"The minute she starts singing, it reminds me a bit of Aretha Franklin," said Mekons singer Sally Timms. Case also sings backup on Mekons' recent Journey to the End of the Night.

"She just has a lot of a lot of electricity to what she does. She's an amazing singer, but she has something else. There's a lot of people that are amazing singers, but she has something that just makes you go, 'Whoa!' It kind of makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end."

With Furnace Room Lullaby, Case said she felt more in command of her vision than on the previous disc.

Again, there's a certain sense of emancipation. She's now fallen so comfortably into the role of singer/songwriter that she wonders why she hadn't tried her hand at it earlier.

"It's not something I ever thought of myself as being able to do," she said. "But then one day I just felt the need to do it and did it. And now I do it all the time, and it seems like the thing I should have been doing all along. But you can't feel bad for arriving at those realizations late, because the process in getting there is just as important as doing it."