Music Review: Neko Case's Middle Cyclone

by Rick Rockwell

Neko Case sings with the most bewitching of voices. So much so, that this author would be afraid to meet her in person, lest he be permanently hypnotized, put under her spell.

Case brings her considerable vocal talents to Middle Cyclone, her seventh solo record. (Although Case hails from northern Virginia, she is also a member of the Canadian indie rock band, the New Pornographers.) For listeners who haven’t fallen for the musical charms of Case yet, listening to Middle Cyclone will likely leave them enchanted.

Case’s spellbinding begins immediately on the opening number, “This Tornado Loves You,” which is arranged closer to her usual alt-country style, with an intricate banjo/acoustic guitar melody line woven beneath her multi-layered voice. Songs like “This Tornado Loves You” make Case out as the 21st Century version of Patsy Cline. Like Cline, Case’s vocalizations pack an emotional wallop.

This is aided in no small way by Case the songwriter. Case wrote 12 of the album’s 15 tracks. The album’s first single “People Got a Lotta Nerve” displays her great sense of wordplay: “I’m a man…man…man…man…man…maneater/But still you’re surprised…prised…prised/When I eat ya!" This single also features a wonderful metaphorical self-reflective moment when Case compares herself to a killer whale.

Whether she really has the temperament of an orca, Cases’ quirky personality shines through on Middle Cyclone (no doubt another inside joke metaphor). You don’t even need to listen to the album to notice that. The album photo of her street surfing with a sword on the hood of a classic Mercury Cougar certainly reveals a bit. Some of the tracks were cut in the barn of her new farm in Vermont. Some use an assembly of what she calls a piano orchestra inside the barn. (This technique is especially effective on her cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me.”) The closing track, “Marais la Nuit” is more than 30 minutes of the sound around the pond of her farm that Case recorded mid-summer. This sense of humor could also be why Case covered a tune by Sparks for this release, “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth.” (Who covers Sparks? Who remembers Sparks?!) Her version, with its chamber pop arrangement and vocals that recall Kate Bush, seems sincere but that sincerity is applied with an impish grin.

There’s so much to like on Middle Cyclone but by now as you read this review you may suspect what you read, this writer no doubt beguiled by Case the sultry siren. Sure enough there’s a song that covers this thought perfectly: “Prison Girls” with its film noire stylings casts Case in the role of one of those women your mother should have/never/constantly warned you about. “Red Tide” also uses the minor key noire sound of guitars in tremolo mode, with a muted sax thrown in the mix for good measure.

Another highlight, “Magpie of the Morning” starts with a jazzy introductory passage, more than a hint and a nod to Joni Mitchell. This song also has a great turn of phrase: “Run an airtight mission,/A Cousteau expedition./Found a diamond at the bottom of the drain.”

On top of all this, Case, as co-producer (with Darryl Neudorf) throws in all sorts of sonic experiments that work, much in the way Wilco established artists can stretch the alt-country genre. Music boxes make appearances to set the mood (“The Next Time You Say Forever” and the title track). Bells tinkle (“Fever”). Organs crank like summer carousels (“The Pharaohs”).

So it comes to this. By the end of Middle Cyclone it is now obvious Neko Case doesn’t need to show up in the flesh to put her hex on this listener. Middle Cyclone has done that already.

(The promotional photo of Neko Case is from ANTI- Records. She will begin her U.S. tour in Austin, TX on March 31. To see Neko Case perform "People Got a Lotta Nerve" on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Q TV, please check below.)

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