One of the more underrated characters in Brian O’Malley’s seminal Toronto indie graphic novel Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is Kim Pine, the drummer for the titular character’s band, Sex Bob-omb. Her most well-known was her prickly demeanor to all mankind, stemming from her jilted romantic past with the title character and her status as “that girl who plays drums,” both a badge of pride and an easy joke.
There’s no evidence to support this claim, but one could easily envision Neko Case as being a little like Kim Pine. A Virginian vagabond, Case spent her formative years in Toronto, playing drums in punk acts like Cub and Maow, the latter of which was fully female. Her disposition may be nothing like her fictitious foil, but there’s certainly a brutal bloodthirst to her second and most beautiful record, 2000s Furnace Room Lullaby. Maintaining some of the dancehall honky-tonk from her first proper full-length The Virginian, Furnace Room is a swaggering piece of country work by a woman who clearly wanted to shrug some demons of her chest.
One need look no further than the opening track. A sweet, languid waltz of a number on its face, “Set Out Running” burbles with a darkness that Case herself has acknowledged as a key part of the songs ethos. For, you see, “Set Out Running,” and quite a bit of the album itself, is about murder. More specifically, that great country trope of the deadbeat finally getting what was coming to him from his beleaguered wife. Were it that easy, Furnace Room Lullaby wouldn’t have the multilayered bite it does; Case does her absolute best to get down to the raw emotion of her characters, and on “Running” that means belting out convincing sorrow and guilt while driving across the windswept prairie. Three dimensional emotional release has never been a great strong suit of the type of country Case dealt with in her early career, but most of the tracks paint character portraits like many for more narratively based albums would kill to.
Hell, it’s damn near heartbreaking when Case croons “tenderly, tenderly, please take my breath from me” for the second time on “Twist the Knife,” co-written by similarly three-dimensional portrait artist Ryan Adams.
Most of the tracks on the record deal with some sort of female sinner coming to grips with the things she’s done to the people around her or to herself. Puffy-chested bluster “Mood to Burn Bridges” is sufficiently ribald and almost scary mostly because, of all the clichéd things to say about a country singing woman, Neko Case’s voice kills every note. Her soul vacillates around continuously more unlikely chord shifts, until it’s a miracle Case doesn’t straight yodel on the record. One might say she’s digging deep into a baritone to speak of going to a funeral she has no desire to attend on “South Tacoma Way,” the next she’s cooing like the angels she’s not good enough for. Her elevator-like ability to shift pitch speaks volumes about her intrinsic talent, but it also informs the the depth of the characters Case has written. It seems as if Case has no love lost for the dead on most of the tracks, but there’s still that line—“and I’m still in love with you.” It’s a line most people can sing, some can sing well, and seemingly only Neko Case can sing with the conviction to make it lose its cliché.
The most famous murder tale on Furnace Room Lullaby is the title track, presumably because it’s the most minor key, doggedly referential of the Louvin Brothers song on the record. Perhaps it’s a bit too on-the-nose for a modern country album, which balances its slide and string with heaps of modern pop twinges. But for an album that has spent the majority of its running time humanizing and explaining the actions of an unnamed narrator both remorseful and elated about the prospect of ending the life of the person who tormented and loved her, Neko Case earns her dark epilogue spelling the character’s psychosis out more clearly. Kim Pine might never have killed anybody in Scott Pilgrim, but O’Malley’s excellent character development once again the work Neko Case does on her best album—a convincing character portrait with flaws, if powerfully listenable ones.
Neko Case – Furnace Room Lullaby track list
- “Set Out Running”
- “Guided by Wire”
- “Mood to Burn Bridges”
- “No Need to Cry”
- “Twist the Knife”
- “Thrice All American”
- “We’ve Never Met”
- “Whip the Blankets”
- “South Tacoma Way”
- “Bought and Sold”
- “Furnace Room Lullaby”