Review Summary: An album that could hold its own against any of the New Pornos’ best, it’s sure to continue to establish Case as an accomplished artist on her own terms.
Alt-country chanteuse Neko Case has become more well known in alternative circles for her excellent vocal work with fellow Canadians the New Pornographers, but if you’re only familiar with her from that, you are sorely missing one of the great female talents in indie rock today. 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood was rightly hailed as one of the best albums of that year and her best to date, even hitting #54 on Billboard’s Top 200. And with this month’s Middle Cyclone, Case continues her ascent, creating a concise album of lightly country-flavored pop revolving around her distinctive alto and smart lyrics.
“This Tornado Loves You” is a soothing intro, opening with a chugging riff overlaid with tinkling, bright guitar licks and Case proclaiming “my love, I am the speed of sound” with that fairly flawless voice. The gradual buildup to the titular climactic chorus is propulsive and natural, leading Case to a question that seems to set up a challenge for the rest of the record: “what will make you believe me"”
Even more so than Fox Confessor, Middle Cyclone is permeated by nature in all its aspects, be it the careful warning of acoustic strummer “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” and its aching strings, to the literal chorus of frogs barely heard in the background of “Polar Nettles.” Part of this undoubtedly has to do with one of Case’s recording locations of choice: a dirt-floor barn in rural Vermont, where most of the piano was recorded. This, unfortunately, leads to the greatest misstep on the record, a completely ambient track of wildlife sounds in the pond outside of said farm, a track that falls just short of the 32-minute mark (!). Luckily, the pointless “song” closes out the album for optimal skipping ease, but it still mars an otherwise enjoyable record.
The success of Fox Confessor might have led Case to branch out even more here, trading in some of her oft-depressive Americana flavor for more lighthearted chamber-pop goodness. Just check out confident first single “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” which flows along on a jangly electric melody before erupting into Case’s obscenely catchy “I’m a man-man-man, man-man-man-eater” chorus. But her country-pop roots continue to remain her strongest point and an influence she does well to embrace, such as on the gentle finger-picking of ballad “Vengeance Is Sleeping” and the smoky folk of “Magpie To The Morning.”
With guests from M. Ward to Calexico, the album is a finely produced and colorful work, but it’s Case who steals the spotlight once again. Her voice is at the top of its game here; with only Ward’s guitar to accompany her on the title track, she effortlessly paints a picture of repressed love in imagery like “I lie across the path waiting / just for a chance to be a spiderweb / trapped in your lashes,” and in her cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” she is a comforting presence, her voice rising above swelling piano to assure that “you know I’ll think about you / let me know you’ll think about me too.”
Aside from the ill-advised nature “field recording” of closer “Marais La Nuit,” Middle Cyclone is remarkably short, with most songs ranging between two and three minutes. It is Case’s most solid album to date, a record that is gone almost before one realizes what they’ve just listened to and which merits repeated spins to appreciate it fully. It’s a cinematic record that wanes and waxes to its singer’s tunes, going from dauntless love to quiet, sultry melancholia with the ease of a well-practiced performer. An album that could hold its own against any of the New Pornos’ best, it’s sure to continue to establish Case as an accomplished artist on her own terms.