Somewhere along the line, danger disappeared from country music. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings can still claim to be outlaws, but they're not exactly country's future, and anyway, tax evasion and pot smoking aren't much on the crime front these days. As for the barnyard of current young country stars, there's something in all of that toned-down twang and cheery everyday sameness that's just so, well, responsible. Thank goodness, then, for Neko Case, a full-throated rebel who melds a heartfelt country wail with a punk aesthetic and who, truth be told, may not even be a country singer at all.
Danger and darkness ooze from the 29-year-old Tacoma, Wash., resident's rather brilliant second full-length CD, "Furnace Room Lullaby." The first hint of the CD's eerier contents is a disturbing cover photograph of Case lying glassy-eyed on a cement floor. With a voice that alternates between celestial sweetness and the grittiness of a truck-stop floor, Case's unorthodox, superbly original blend lands somewhere in the badlands between Patsy Cline and Patti Smith or Dolly Parton and the New York Dolls. Trouble is a Case constant. One moment she sounds as if she could steamroll right over you ("Mood to Burn Bridges"), the next she's ready to whisper confessions that you should probably never hear ("No Need to Cry").
Many of the songs on "Furnace Room" sound eerily out of time and place -- out of this world even. There's a noir quality to them, as if each one were a twangy soundtrack to an inescapable darkness. Accompanied only by the starkest instrumentation on songs such as "Porchlight" and the riveting title track, Case's voice seems to descend from an alien land. On "Twist the Knife" she sings, "You'll be my guest and I'll let you stay/Leave me the check, I'll pay with the rest of my life/Twist the knife."
Though there are intermittent rave-ups -- the wonderfully roughshod "Whip the Blankets," for instance -- most of the songs here arrest you with their captivating bleakness. Recorded with Case's very able contingent of mix-and-match musicians, the Boyfriends, the songs are almost entirely about relationships that end badly, deaths of people and places, recurring litanies of familiar sorrow. Even the somewhat boastful "Thrice All American," about her hometown, paints a ghastly image of a decaying city filled with more ghosts than people. Case's pride in Tacoma, it seems, is that it hasn't succumbed to the Wal-Mart sameness of so many other American cities. In many ways the city is indicative of Case herself: Better to be a dark, ghostly, mysterious personality than bland and banal. Better to travel a bumpy, troubled road to who knows where than a straight and narrow path to same old, same old.