Neko Case - Middle Cyclone Review

With one of the most powerful and appealing voices in popular music today, Neko Case owns every song she performs. When she lends her talent to the potent power pop of the New Pornographers, she’s a surge of sunny melody and body-bouncing energy. When she concentrates on her own material, her tone is always the most immediately grabbing part of every song. Repeated listens unearth the instrument method but no studying is required to unpeel the layers of her throat. Even when she draws it back to a warble, there’s no one else in the room that matters.

With the Pornographers, we know how well her voice lends extra oomph and mischief to hook-friendly pop music, but when left alone, she prefers twisted and complex songwriting in the simplest ways possible. Even when the tones lurch from one rustic adventure to the next, it’s a gradient of subtle autumnal harmonies. It is, of course, debatable which one gets the better complement by her presence. Is it best to let her banshee-belt over gentle twangs and tinkling pianos or does that force of nature in her lungs deserve back-up from musical mirth, gusto and muscle?

Mirth can only be found of the wry variety with Case’s solo records. Saying that Middle Cyclone is a bit brighter than most of her other records goes without saying, but it also goes without saying much. She’s always been intensely personal while rarely speaking solely from her own person. Confusing as those statements may sound, it rhymes with the elliptical way she changes from day to night in proximal breaths. Without ever resorting to idiosyncrasies solely invented for the bragging rights of indie preciousness or alt-country swagger, it’s not that she’s enigmatic but rather that she’s the right amount of mysterious and reflective all the while confronting the matter at hand.

The matter at hand here is nature, whether it be of the beast variety or the Mother kind. The album title hints at a storm brewing and we get there quickly on the leadoff track, “The Tornado Loves You.” Envisioning herself as a turbulent twister, she leaves a path of emotional destruction (it could be argued if she’s smitten in ways that are mentally unbalanced or just utterly devoted). On “I Am an Animal,” Case sings about how, “There are things that I’m still so afraid of/But my courage is roaring like the sound of the sun/’Cause it’s vain about its mane and will reveal them to no one/And I’m an animal, you’re an animal, too.” She doesn’t stop with her wildlife imagery there—among the many creatures referenced are owls, killer whales, magpies, elephants and doves. And there’s also the sound of birds chirping on “Polar Nettles,” and the last track, which isn’t a song at all, but just a half hour of crickets and frogs.

With Neko at the fore, we’re lucky she can come up with phrases that can be evocative, amusing, biting and melancholic. On “The Next Time You Say Forever,” she snaps, “The next time you say forever, I'll punch you in your face.” But then on the title track, she aches from the heart by saying, “I lie across the path waiting, just for a chance to be a spiderweb trapped in your lashes.” She can even sing of vivid sights in implausible and crooked ways, like when she describes, “Black hands held so high/The vulture wheels and dives/Something on the thermals/Yanked his chain,” during “Magpie to the Morning.” Being widely talented at lyricism certainly helps her since the words and the person delivering them are always the focal point.

But the music doesn’t always drift across the scenery, though. “Prison Girls” has an ominous threat to its richly noir minor key vamp, slow and steady upon the nerves; Case’s words compliment the brooding texture, particularly the vibrant sight of “gunpowder eyes.” The fluttery twang of “Vengeance Is Sleeping” rolls like waves, almost weightless, and is punched apart by the vocals without ever feeling violent or overbearing. There are even times when the music comes close to the same level as Case’s singing, like the rollicking barroom-meets-garage stomp of Red Tide” and the spring of a chiming guitar on “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” which contains one of the album’s few bulging hooks when Case claims to be a “man-man-maneater” (sans memories of Hall & Oates, too).

Whether or not you subscribe to the theory that Case’s compositions would suffer if they leaned closer to pop than alt-country, the subtle transitions between verse and chorus are sometimes so faint that they render many songs with an incomplete air upon the first few listens. Until you memorize the movements and phrases, several of them close quite abruptly. It leaves the audience wanting more—songs that end too soon are still preferable to ones that overstay their welcome. But Middle Cyclone can best be described as a showcase for the instrument that is Neko Case far more than any of the ones played by hand or foot. It will require a number of passes to sink in properly. But I could listen to Case sing the most trite of phrases that clack and clatter about on the radio these days without any instrumental melody at all and still come away modestly satisfied.

"Middle Cyclone" is on sale March 3, 2009 from Anti-.

Matt Medlock


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