IT'S A TUESDAY evening late in February, on the day that Neko Case's long-awaited second album, Furnace Room Lullaby, hits record store shelves. The 29-year-old

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Troubled lullabies

On the verge of a breakthrough, Neko Case is ornery as hell.

IT'S A TUESDAY evening late in February, on the day that Neko Case's long-awaited second album, Furnace Room Lullaby, hits record store shelves. The 29-year-old isn't celebrating or biting her nails or spying on shoppers at Tower, however. She's washing dishes at Hattie's Hat, because that's her job.

Neko Case & Her Boyfriends

Tractor, Saturday, April 1

After her shift, Neko sits at the counter and sips from a whiskey on the rocks. Her dark hair falls over her darting eyes, and she occasionally pushes it back while making a point. She's excited yet fatigued, and a little fed up. Already the music press is fawning over her record, but no one wants to mention her "Boyfriends," the loose amalgamation of musical pals who backed her in the studio and who've congealed into a semipermanent band that includes drummer Joel Treeblood, guitarists Carl Newman and Bill Anderson, and bassist Scott Betts (who would break his wrist the day before the start of the tour supporting the album and be replaced by Tolin McNeil).

"It's been frustrating for me because I always do interviews with people who ask about my band and I talk about my band at length and then they never print any of it," says Neko, launching into the first of several rants. "They think I'm a solo artist, and my name is on it, but my band is on it too. It's not a solo record."

What Furnace Room Lullaby is, as publications like People and Time are rushing to point out, is a country album that acts as if the past 20 or so years—from Urban Cowboy to Garth Brooks—never happened. It's an honest, heartfelt work of homespun love songs and sad laments, and it comes not from the country strongholds of Nashville or Austin or Bakersfield, but from the mouth of a gal from Tacoma.

Coincidentally, one of the many highlights on the disc is a paean to her hometown, "Thrice All American," a beautiful song that starts with Neko preaching, "I wanna tell you about my hometown, it's a dusty old jewel in the south Puget Sound," then expands into a toothsome waltz. If not for its dead-on sentiments about American cities getting either exploited or neglected in the Y2K boom economy, the tune could easily be mistaken for an old Loretta Lynn hit.

NEKO CASE GREW UP in Tacoma and other Washington towns, thinking that the well-dressed country artists who peered out from the album covers in her grandmother's record collection lived a lifestyle that she'd never know. "Music seemed like another dimension," she recalls. "It was such a wealthy-looking thing and I was such a poor little kid. We were on welfare for a while when I was really young, and being in the music business didn't seem like it could possibly happen."

Still, as a teenager, the Tacoma punk scene intrigued her, and Neko rethought her initial reaction to the music biz. After high school, she attended a design college in Vancouver, BC, where that city's music community also had an impact; soon, she was playing in raggedy punk bands. After a stint in Toronto, Neko moved to Seattle in February 1999, though she'd hardly settled.

By then, her musical output had taken a twangy turn. She'd already released a 1996 album for Bloodshot, The Virginian, that brought an unexpected volley of attention. "It was kind of an experiment to see what I could do," she says, "and it got so much press that I got excited and thought maybe they would play it on country music radio. You always have to try and be stupid at least once."

Undaunted, Neko continued writing for another album and recording with friends from Canada and Seattle. She started the Corn Sisters with Carolyn Mark; they've regularly wowed Seattle audiences with spirited impromptu shows. They also recorded an album live in the back room of Hattie's, which may be released this year.

Eventually, Neko took to the road and began work on what would become Furnace Room. She recorded in Chicago, Vancouver, and Seattle, fighting off record label executives and trying to coordinate the schedules of more than a dozen guest musicians and bandmates.

"It's so weird," she says. "You'll be sitting there and you'll think back over the last two years of your life and think, 'How the hell did I fit all that in?'"

BUT SHE DID. And with the album receiving raves in the press and selling thousands of copies out of the gate, and with an appearance at the music convention South by Southwest in mid-March that left the industry buzzing about her voice, her confidence, and her songs, Neko is poised to become at least a minor country star. It's something she never imagined, something she's reluctant to accept without her band by her side. It doesn't seem to soothe her.

Despite her almost lifelong residence in the Northwest, she's moving to Chicago; she cites the rising cost of living and overdevelopment as catalysts for her decision. "The people who grew up here can't even stay," she says. "It's horrible. That's what I don't want to happen to Tacoma."

On the bright side, her record label and booking agency are based in Chicago, and the rent's cheaper. "It's a lot more practical," she says with a shrug.

 
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