Neko Case keeps pushing the frontier of her special blend of country rock to an expanse of thought-provoking songs and heartfelt performances. Her latest, Middle Cyclone, is perhaps her most satisfying mix.
Case’s crystal clear voice, so pure and with seemingly limitless range, delivers lyrics of vivid imagery sometimes mixed with metaphor (I have waited with a glacier’s patience, smashed every transformer with every trailer, ’til nothing was standing), sometimes with doses of hard-nosed reality (The next time you say forever, I’ll punch you in your face) over whirlwind muscianship. Her brand of country sounds rooted in the west rather than the south, and her songs stop short of radio-friendly hooks but exhibit beautiful melodies in unusual and creative constructions that invite revisiting after each listen.
The opening track, This Tornado Loves You, rushes at the listener like a lover running roughshod in search of her man. With rolling-wheel guitars sounding like banjos, Case and her band churn out a relentless chase over territory that belongs to the heart but evokes the wild center of a storm.
Whether using spare arrangements (many of the songs are co-arranged with her band’s guitarist Paul Rigby) as in The Next Time You Say Forever, Vengeance Is Sleeping and the title track, or with her full band on the uptempo People Got A Lotta Nerve, the ’50s feel of Fever or the waltz time Magpie To The Morning, the performances are sparkling and appropriate. Of the sparsely played tunes, Middle Cyclone is the most poignant with only voice, guitar and music box.
The haunting melodies of Polar Nettles and Prison Girls, with its droning guitar and pop sensibilities, stand apart starkly from much of the other material but still work perfectly. Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth (a tune by Sparks) plays like an anthem, the background vocals building to a wall of sound by the end. The track also shows Case’s tendency at times toward classical and Celtic sounding melody.
The lovely Harry Nilsson ballad Don’t Forget Me features a piano orchestra of eight players on second-hand pianos in various stages of disrepair, set up in a barn on Case’s Vermont property, where the album was recorded. The sound from the keyboards is drenched in echo as if it were coming from a vast canyon. Despite the funky surroundings of her farm as seen in a promotional video, or perhaps because of it, the album’s production matches the performances throughout – clear, full and distinct.
I’m An Animal is pushed by the driving beat of drummer Barry Mirochnick’s tom-toms on what is probably the album’s heaviest track. Case belts out The Pharaohs in a style reminscent of her tour de force Deep Red Bells from the album Blacklisted. She wrenches everything out of the melody’s sustained notes, sounding like a ringing bell, deep and vibrating. The closer, Red Tide, has Steve Berlin’s keyboard-generated sax section to propel the shuffle feel that Case glides over. There is actually one more cut, more than 31 minutes, of outdoor sounds, either crickets or frogs, Marais La Nuit.
One quibble I have with Case is the length of many of her songs. They’re so short, one clocking in at 1:46 (The Next Time You Say Forever) with most in the two-to-three minute range with the exception of Prison Girls (5:26). This is pretty standard for Case and sometimes I feel a song is not completely developed when it ends or I’m left wanting more of it. But I suppose that’s a good thing. Because that’s what this album does. Makes you want more.