Album Review: Neko Case – Middle Cyclone

Juli Thanki | March 3rd, 2009

Neko Case - Middle CycloneIn a little over a decade, Neko Case has transformed from alt-country darling to indie goddess. Critically acclaimed and fan beloved, she’s made a career writing and singing “country noir,” a sound best exemplified by 2000’s dark and absolutely stunning Furnace Room Lullaby. Her last solo album, 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood was the best—and bestselling—release of her career, not only making her a household name among music junkies of all stripe, but also creating quite the high water mark for Case to live up to. Three years later, she’s finally back with her unique blend of songs about death, love, and animals (along with a growing sense of musical experimentation) all wrapped up in that lovely, expressive voice.

With Middle Cyclone, Case continues her journey away from country music, as might be evident from the album cover, which features her crouched on the hood of a Mercury Cyclone wielding a sword.

But just because it’s not country doesn’t mean it’s not worth hearing. As is often the case with her music, you get so caught up in the magic of Neko’s voice that it takes a couple listens before you realize that there are actually lyrics to be comprehended. And they don’t disappoint–from the sweetly sung threat “The next time you say forever/I will punch you in your face” (“The Next Time You Say Forever”) to “Yes there are things I’m still so afraid of/But my courage is roaring like the sound of the sun,” a lyric from “I’m An Animal” that doesn’t quite make sense but is still, somehow, utterly believable.

In addition to a dozen original songs, Middle Cyclone boasts two covers: New Wave brother duo Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” and Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me.” But if you’ve never heard Sparks or Nilsson, it would be very easy to assume that the two tracks are Case originals, such is the way in which she utterly makes these songs her own with sparse arrangements and haunting vocals. Case also proves she’s been learning quite a bit from New Pornographers bandmate Carl Newman: lead single “People Got A Lotta Nerve” is absolutely perfect power-pop, sure to have even the cooler-than-thou hipsters out on the dance floor.

As always, Neko Case rounds up the usual suspects—Kelly Hogan and Jon Rauhouse from her touring band, as well as members of The Sadies—to lend a hand with instrumentation and vocals. A few unusual suspects show up too, including Americana artists Sarah Harmer, M. Ward, and even Garth Hudson from The Band. The special guests are nice enough, but don’t make any noteworthy contributions to the album aside from the occasional backing vocal and the strange “piano orchestra” which pops up in a handful of songs.

The strangest “song” on Middle Cyclone is its closer, “Marais La Nuit,” which is over thirty minutes—nearly half the album’s length—of crickets chirping. Neko Case has said in interviews that it was recorded one night by a pond at her farm (much of the album was recorded in a barn on her Vermont farm), but it really just sounds like she accidentally left a tape recorder on while she was off guest-voicing another episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force and decided to put the resultant track on her album. It’s self-indulgent, indie-pop navel gazing at its worst, and it’s the only thing preventing this from being a five star record.

Middle Cyclone
might not be country, or even country noir, but it’s still one of the best albums of 2009 so far.

4.5 Stars

1 Ping

  1. [...] is basically just crickets chirping–some people like it, some don’t–e.g. this review suggests that without it, the album would be 5 [...]
  1. Chris D.
    March 3, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    I don’t see how “Marais La Nuit” would alter the score at all- it doesn’t seem to be a part of the album at all anyway, it’s just crickets by a pond. Besides that, this review sounds spot on to me.

    Anyway, I’ve heard most of this album, and it’s coming with my amazon.com shipment within the week. I’ve loved everything I’ve heard especially “This Tornado Loves You”.

    I still can’t believe “Some People Got A Lotta Nerve” is on Rockband- does anyone have it? I want to know how it plays. xD

  2. Sam G.
    March 3, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    Thanks for the review, Juli. I was already excited about this one, but this adds to it. The only downside is that I may never actually listen to the album all the way through, thanks to the last track. I have the same problem with some Wilco records, where perfectly good songs are interrupted by 10 minuted of droning noise.

    Though I must say I can think of a few albums that would be improved by 30 minutes worth of crickets.

  3. Chris N.
    March 3, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    I was kinda thinking of it as a bonus track.

  4. Jim
    March 3, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    Thank you for that second-to-last paragraph. I agree completely. I was feeling irrationally irritated at Marais La Nuit this morning as I listened to this for the first time, and even more irritated to see other reviews straining to find ways to praise it.

    To Sam G., it doesn’t affect the other music on the album, but I completely agree with Juli’s assessment that it hurts the album as a whole.

  5. Noah Eaton
    March 3, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    “Blacklisted” remains my favorite album of hers to date, which indeed I find closer to country than most of what is presently on the Country radio format presently, particularly on songs like “Deep Red Bells”, “I Wish I Was The Moon” and “Ghost Wiring”.

    However, “Middle Cyclone” is hands down an excellent album that I don’t consider much a departure for her at all (the album cover could easily suggest such a transition) but more a sinewing of her artistic maturity over this last decade.

    What struck me primarily was the number of love songs that are featured here, as I remember Case saying in interviews in the past that she didn’t like writing love songs. Don’t fear, though, because Case’s vocals, known for being characteristically emotional in resonance but in an unsentimental fashion, don’t wade into maudlin waters on these romantic-leaning numbers. If anything, I think her voice has deepened here, which listening to “Star Witness” on her previous record (my personal favorite song of hers to date because it combines her somber yet gorgeous vocal capacities with her amazing growth as a songwriter) I could already sense that was a preview of more greatness to come from her.

    My personal favorites here are “Vengeance is Sleeping”, “This Tornado Loves You” and “Polar Nettles”. A simply breathtaking record all around.

  6. Stormy
    March 3, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    I kind of agree with Julie that 30 minutes of crickets chirping smacks of pretentious self indulgance.

  7. Noah Eaton
    March 4, 2009 at 12:43 am

    I don’t believe “Marais La Nuit” (which translates as “march at night” in French) hurts “Middle Cyclone” at all when I reflect on the thematic nature of this record, as well as the fact this record was produced in an open barn rather than a studio.

    Look, across the breadth of this record Case references a number of different animal species (as well as forces of nature). The most obvious examples can be instantly identified in the titles “I’m An Animal” and “Magpie To The Morning”, but are also found in the lyrics of many other tracks, including elephants and killer whales in “People Got A Lotta Nerve”. I also heard in an interview that much of her lyrical inspiration for this record came from various accounts she heard regarding attacks at zoos and the amusing fact that those who are attacked are somehow surprised that zoo animals retain wild, primitive behavior.

    So, to me, my theory is she placed that half hour of frog croaking recording at the end of the album to make a point about many of us have taken for granted the notion that we can never truly tame nature, and also that we all have our own primal, primitive instincts, regardless of how willing we’re able to admit that or not due to the intimidating thought of it. I believe “Marais La Nuit” is meant to be a meditative moment of sorts on that truth, and recognizing it doesn’t always come out in chords, measures and lyrics.

    That’s just my thought anyway.

  8. Gene Calvert
    March 4, 2009 at 6:10 am

    I wish more reviewers would add the human side as well as Judi did in her like-being-there review of the Kris Kristofferson concert. I wasn’t there, but I felt that I was. Edward Weissmiller, besides being a poet, scholar, and World War II hero, is perhaps our last living Renaissance man. It speaks so well of Kris that he would remember one from so long ago who helped him on his way to adding meaning through words and music to the lives of millions. It speaks so a well of Judi that she would tell us this in a concert review. Gene

  9. JuniorDimas
    March 4, 2009 at 6:20 am

    The paragraph about the last track made me laugh out loud! Heard a review on this on NPR as well, it may very be the first album I buy in a year and a half.

  10. Baron Lane
    March 5, 2009 at 11:27 am

    Juli: Though I do appreciate the broadened perspective you bring to the 9513, I think this new Neko Case release is so far off the country/roots/Americana reservation it makes Wilco sound like Eleven Hundred Springs.

    I can only assume from interviews I’ve read that Case felt that the alt.country moniker was a limiting factor in her work. I can see how that might be, she certainly now has more in common with her other band, the New Pornographers, then she does with her own earlier work.

    But this shedding of boundaries makes her seem to be directionless and, as you stated about the last cut, self-indulgent. I preferred when she channeled Patsy Cline more than what I assume is her latest inspiration, Tori Amos.

  11. Juli
    March 5, 2009 at 11:44 am

    Baron, I was really surprised at how little roots influence was in Middle Cyclone. While Fox Confessor was more indie pop, it still had a bit of Case’s earlier Americana style; plus there was an awesome murder ballad.

    But as you said, this one is really New Pornographers style power pop, which is great, even though it’s a marked difference from alt-country. While I like country noir Neko, I’ll take her music any way I can get it, even if it verges on self-indulgent hipster music.

  12. Noah Eaton
    March 5, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    The murder ballad you’re referring to is “Star Witness”, which also happens to be my favorite Neko Case track to date.

    Look, if we’ve gotten to the point where Red Dirt and the Bakersfield Sound are being considered more “alternative country” than naturally “country”, then I think Neko Case fits the country mode well enough, even if “Middle Cyclone” isn’t exactly “Blacklisted”.

  13. Chris N.
    March 5, 2009 at 4:58 pm

    Here’s why I’ll defend “Marais La Nuit”: I was listening to the album in headphones today and had to leave my desk for a while. When I came back and put my headphones back on — having forgotten what I had been listening to — I heard crickets.

    It’s not like that track is on there instead of another half-hour of songs. They’re bonus crickets!

  14. Baron Lane
    March 5, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    Noah: I may be old-fashioned but I do believe that genres can be stretched to the point of irrelevance. I think that’s what you’ve done.

    The thing that I find most striking about MC is Case’s ability to take Garth Hudson, members of Giant Sand, Los Lobos and Calexico and drain any semblance of twang from them.

  15. Noah Eaton
    March 5, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    Baron, while I agree that every genre should have its limits, I’ve always thought of the Country genre as the most diverse genre traditionally-speaking; which the metaphor of a large banyun tree with large, elongated roots stretching out across various terrains and types of grasses and brush often comes to my mind when I think of the genre in general. Country music is a family tree larger and wider than any other genre I know and, if anything, many facets of the genre can sound contradictory, but still harmonize well and are unmistakably country.

    I think, in more contemporary times, while the true essence of the genre is no less diverse now than it ever was, from a radio and establishment standpoint what is musically appreciated as “country” has become quite homogenized: where some branches of that large banyun tree have been broken off and are now overlooked or dismissed as “alternative country”, sometimes “alternative” altogether. Appalachian folk, Red Dirt, Bakersfield Sound, bluegrass just to name a small handful.

    While I don’t argue Case is evolving as an artist increasingly further from the Country genre and into more of a general singer-songwriter mold, she nonetheless has unmistakably sounded country on her earlier releases in particular. Moreover, just because you’re growing and entering new artistic territory doesn’t mean you should already instantly be dismissed as never being “country” entirely. Just because Collin Rayes releases an adult-contemporary album, or Willie Nelson releases a reggae album, doesn’t mean they’ve stretched the genre to the point of irrelevance. It’s just part of their musical maturity and experimentation, and I believe there will always exist the possibility of Neko Case sojourning back to her “Furnace Room Lullaby” sound and beyond.

  16. Jim Malec
    March 6, 2009 at 7:08 am

    Sometimes we review something left-of-center when it is dominating the country news cycle. If there is music that is of interest to our readership, our responsibility is to bring that music to them. I agree-it’s a stretch to call this country. It’s also a stretch to call Rascal Flatts country.

  17. Baron Lane
    March 6, 2009 at 8:53 am

    @ Jim, yes! Please stop referring to RS as country…ditto with Taylor Swift. ;)

    Noah: Agreed. I’ve argued ad nauseum that Nashville has no monopoly on what constitutes “Country Music” and that it has (like jazz, metal and rap) sub-genres that allow growth and experimentation. All good.

    I never argued that by Case moving into new artistic territory should be “dismissed as never being “country” entirely.” On the contrary, I refer back to those early releases to track a trajectory away from the genre. To use one of your examples, one Reggae album does not make Willie a neo-Rasta, but a succession (I use this term dually) of reggae albums would move me to wonder if he’s no longer a country artist. Past work does not define the genre of new releases.

    Nor does a diversion away from a genre erase all that came before it. Ice T is not a thrash metal vocalists because of the a Body Count release and Garth Brooks is not a lite-rock crooner becuase of Chris Gaines.

    I’m looking at Case’s last two releases (her references to Hank Williams as a influence aside) and seeing a pattern away from the elements that made her a torch and twang queen. As an analog I ask; is KD Lang still a country artist though she gave up her boots for pop-standards over a decade ago? She made some of the best neo-trad work in the 80’s (along with Dwight Yoakam and Lyle Lovett) but I in no way would refer to her new work as country music.

  18. Stormy
    March 12, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Neko is #3 on Billboard this week!

  19. SBG
    May 8, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    Nah. Marais la Nuit would be self-indulgent if it were smack dab in the middle of the album. As it stands, I actually find it kind of a soothing bonus track – one I can choose to listen to entirely, partially or skip altogether.

    It’s not going on my iPod, though. ;)

  20. Steaksauce
    November 9, 2009 at 3:24 am

    “Self-indulgent.” It’s rather odd that the review sounds like others I have read, since I became very curious about the final track when I woke up in the middle of the night with “Marais La Nuit,” playing on my iPod as I slept tonight. I was amazed at the guts that Neko Case has to even put it anywhere, let alone on a retail album.

    First, I’m glad she did, and I’m happy that she shared it with those who enjoy good music. When people choose to examine why someone does something that’s unique by wondering out loud (or worse, in “print”) if it’s “self-indulgent,” I wonder why the interviews haven’t actually been thorough enough to understand why Case chose to record in her marsh and use about half of the CD for the recording. Perhaps it’s reviewers being lazy?

    I can only think that Case loves the natural peace at her home, and that the marsh is a source of her creative meditation. I smiled when I realized that crickets were the encore of this terrific CD. And yes, I’m glad to say that it’s a 5★ selection on my iPod.

  21. QueGee
    July 24, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    Thank you, Steaksauce! You hit the nail on the head. Reading this review made me think that we are losing touch with earnest simplicity. It also begged the question: “Jealous often?” The reviewer seems out of touch with the finer details of life and fine art, like an eternally modern person without much philosophical or emotional sensibility beyond the touch-and-go. I’ve met people like this before. Friends of mine refer to them as “muggles” as a joke.

    Marais La Nuit isn’t hard to praise unless you’re stifled by self-important impatience.

  22. boodog
    December 18, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    FROGS-those are frogs, not crickets

  23. Guanton75
    February 7, 2011 at 10:27 am

    In regards to “Marais La Nuit”, they aren’t crickets, they are spring peepers (pseudacris crucifer). Spring peepers usually start calling, for the season, after the first rain storm when night time temps are above freezing. Hence there name, SPRING peepers. They are a true sign that another winter is behind us, that spring has begun, and that plants and animals will begin to flourish again. I look forward to the sound every spring perhaps now, with Mrs. Case’s help, more people will appreciate them.

    Enjoy

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