Album Review: Neko Case – Middle Cyclone

Before this review begins, I think everyone should take just a moment to bask in the glory of that album cover, featuring Neko squatting in battle pose on the hood of a Mercury while wielding a longsword.  Pure awesome.

Neko Case is an artist who refuses to remain stagnant.  In an alternate universe, it is not difficult to imagine Cases’s career going in a different direction, with Case playing up her red-headed beauty and deep, resonant voice into a vampy, country-fried burlesque goddess.  While any red-blooded male may lament the fact that her career has not followed that path, Case herself is far too intelligent, talented, and ambitious to pigeonhole herself into such a stifling role.  With each subsequent release following her debut album The Virginian, Case has evolved as a songwriter, gradually eschewing the confines of genre and conventional song structures.  Her last release, 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, saw Case testing the waters of the sound that would come to make up her follow up, while still tenuously clutching on to the alt-country comforts that have permeated her songs since the beginning.  Now, with the release of Middle Cyclone, Case has completed her metamorphosis, emerging from her cocoon a more complex and beautiful creature, fully equipped with colorful wings to carry her listeners into flight.

You’ll have to excuse the nature imagery.  It must be infectious, for, as on Fox Confessor, Case’s lyrics have become increasingly complex and poetic, and she often uses man’s struggle with nature as metaphors for her stormy, mostly feminine protagonists.  Opening song “This Tornado Loves You” imagines a twister as an angry, searching lover whose rage at losing the object of its desire is the cause of vast destruction (“I carved your name across three counties, and ground it in with bloody hides”).  “People Got A Lotta Nerve”, like a sequel to “The Tigers Have Spoken”, uses the perspective of a murderous zoo animal as a stand-in for an unapologetic woman (“I’m a man eater, and still you’re surprised when I eat ya”).  While Case’s powerful songwriting anchors this album, the standout track is actually a cover of the 1974 tune “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” by Sparks, featuring intense percussion and huge, choir-like backing vocals.  The song highlights Case’s voice, as well as the themes and adventurous arrangements that permeate the album’s other tracks.  The instrumentation on Middle Cyclone stretches past Case’s previous comfort zone of acoustic and slide guitars, introducing strings, music boxes, pianos and other instruments that provide a dark undercurrent to Case’s often haunting lyrics.

With references to elephants, killer whales, ants, and a variety of birds, it still comes as a slight surprise that the final track on the Middle Cyclone consists of nothing but a thirty minute recording of frogs chirping in Case’s backyard.  While this choice has been derided by many critics (the single closing track is nearly as long as all the other tracks combined), it serves as an oddly peaceful finish to this stormy album, a fitting reminder that after all the violent storms and crushing human relationships have ended, nature and life itself will continue to flourish and grow.  It’s a defiant statement by an artist who refuses to conform to expectations, and Neko Case continues to flourish and grow with each release.

Neko Case – “People Got A Lotta Nerve”

Neko Case – “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth”

 

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