Album Review: Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
In 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.
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