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The Country Underground and Neko

There’s nothing alternative about Neko Case’s country

As soon as Neko Case belts out the heart-wrenching opening line, “Want to get it all behind me…” at the outset of Furnace Room Lullaby, you know she’s singing about L-O-V-E gone wrong. But she might as well be talking about love songs, and the troublesome way they can sneak up on you when you’re trying to write honest music, particularly of the country variety.

“It’s kind of embarrassing that so many of the songs are kind of love songs, because I’m so sick of them, I tell you,” the Virginia-born, Washington state-raised and Canadian-fine-tuned singer says of her just-released second album. “It’s the most cliched thing in the world. But if it just comes out and you didn’t force it, you can keep it, I guess. I’m getting out of that, but it’s impossible to not think about it.”

When further pressed on the matter, she cagily admits that some of it may have had it’s roots in a “long-term relationship that ended horribly,” but she’s not about to give that mess too much credit for inspiring any of the bewitching torch and twang lullabies on Furnace Room, or her slightly more raucous ’97 debut, The Virginian. “Basically, it comes from when you break up with someone who you’ve been going out with for a long time, and you realize how much of yourself you’ve lost in that relationship. You’re more mad at yourself for letting yourself do that than you are at the other person.”

When Case isn’t singing about love gone to hell on Furnace Room Lullaby, she’s likely to be singing about her beloved hometown of Tacoma, Washington. It was there, she sings on the album-standout “South Tacoma Way,” where she “found passion for life,” even though “there was no hollow promise that life would reward you.” “Loving your hometown — that’s a cliched thing too, but it’s a good break from, ‘Oh, my tortured heart!'” Case laughs. “[Tacoma]’s got a real bad name for itself — it’s really the underdog of Washington State. But at the same time, that keeps people from moving there. Downtown is practically deserted. It’s a very strange place.”

Case spent her teenage years in Tacoma, a period of her life that found her leaving home and high school at fifteen (“family problems”), living in a friend’s basement and banging out her angst playing drums in Cramps-style punk bands. Migrating to Vancouver to pursue a fine arts degree in college, she continued to pound the skins as part of the arty-roots-punk trio Maow. “We were arty in a way that was really silly,” she says. “We’d wear furry bikinis and stuff on stage, and we would get mad when people would go, ‘You’re such a novelty band!’ because we practiced just as hard as anyone else did.”

She stuck with the band all through college, touring with them and recording an album in ’97 for the Canadian label Mint. When it came time to write more songs for Maow, Case’s contributions didn’t quite fit the mold; the classic country music she’d been exposed to as a child via her grandmother had taken root in her subconscious. The result was The Virginian, a sterling collection of originals and vintage covers that sounded like Patsy Cline gone wild. Credited to Case and “Her Boyfriends” — a revolving band of male and female collaborators – the album (along with the later Furnace Room) was released by Mint and licensed by the U.S. insurgent country label Bloodshot.

Although her new songs didn’t quite fit Maow, Case says the move from punk rock to hard country was not a drastic one. “Country’s very much like punk rock, anyways,” she says. “It’s made by poor, kind of pissed-off disgruntled people. It’s just a very passionate form of music — they’re very similar in that way.” Just don’t make the mistake of calling her music “y’allternative.”

“I feel disappointed that people feel they have to call it ‘alternative country,’ because I listened to country music growing up, and that was my influence, and I don’t feel like I should have to justify what I do by calling it alternative,” Case says. “Because there’s no way in hell somebody’s going to mistake my music for ‘new’ country anyway. I don’t have to separate myself from that genre because I’m not anywhere near it.”

If Furnace Room Lullaby offers a marked improvement on the already considerable promise of The Virginian, it’s only because it finds Case the songwriter catching up with Case the powerhouse singer. Both sets are unabashedly vocal showcases, and Case sings the devil out of them. She credits her chops to years of practice singing along to gospel music — in particular, an album called Bessie Griffin and the Gospel Girls Swing Down, Sweet Chariot lent to her by a friend in Tacoma.

“Punk rock was really disappointing me at the time,” she says. “And the passion on this was so incredible. That’s what I’d been wanting. I wasn’t a religious person, but listening to the music really made me open up a lot and be more accepting of other people’s ideas. That record changed my life. It opened the door to the great musical search of my life. I’ve never seen a copy of that record since, and it makes me sad, because I’ll never have one. I’d love to get a copy of it — maybe if I keep talking about it, somebody will go, ‘I’ve got a copy and I’ll make you a tape of it!’ That would make my year.”

The only thing that could possibly make her happier, it seems, would be an honest shot at performing at that holy shrine of true country, the Grand Ole Opry.

“I would love more than anything to be on the Grand Ole Opry and have my grandma get to come,” Case says unabashedly. “I have since I was a kid. The Grand Ole Opry and country radio are kind of different, which is the one thing that kind of gives me hope. But I would die if I got to be on the Opry. I don’t know how that happens, though — I need to look into it. Maybe you move to Nashville, but I can’t really see myself doing that.”


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