Thursday, March 5, 2009

Review: Neko Case - Middle Cyclone (* * * * 1/2)

You should never judge a book by its cover, nor an album but its cover art, I would think, but sometimes what you see on the outside can actually give you a decent indication of what you’re likely to find in the author’s/artist’s material. Such is the case with Neko Case’s latest record, Middle Cyclone, the front of which shows Case kneeling on the hood of a muscle car, ready to pounce, sword in hand, flame of red hair blowing in the wind. It’s strange, sexy, and somehow alluring, much like Case’s latest batch of beautiful folk-pop tunes, and it should come as no surprise that she was directly involved in the art and design. ‘Cyclone’ is a well-written and exceptionally recorded singer/songwriter album that features a slew of guests including M. Ward and members of the New Pornographers, Calexico, and Giant sand.

Immediately, Case gets her gorgeous, smooth voice front-and-center with an upbeat and oddball love story in which she describes herself as a destructive force of nature in “This Tornado Loves You.” As she sings her story about how she ‘carve[d] your name across three counties’ and ‘smashed every transformer with every trailer ‘till nothing was standing,’ you mind find yourself relieved she’s not singing about you, but the song is absolutely captivating. Elsewhere, Case sings about her frustration with love in “The Next Time You Say Forever,” human nature in “I’m an Animal,” and loneliness on the album’s title track. Middle Cyclone hits its stride about halfway through the album with two stunning tracks, “Fever” and “Magpie to the Morning,” each featuring fantastic guitar work from M. Ward and some of Case’s best writing. From there, the record cruises to a strong finish with fewer highlights but mostly great material nonetheless. Even when the occasional song doesn’t seem to fit especially well, like the dramatic, eerie “Prison Girls,” the results are at least interesting.

Each song feels carefully crafted, with consistently impressive songwriting at every turn and a band that adds life to Case’s poetry, excelling at a variety of styles. Only occasionally do the arrangements stay very simple, as on the quiet, acoustic “Vengeance Is Sleeping.” Generally, seven or eight people are involved, adding layers of vocal harmony, strings, and guitar to create a sound that is sometimes rock (“People Got A Lotta Nerve”), sometimes orchestral (“Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth,” and occasionally classic pop (“Don’t Forget Me”). Neko Case may be the mastermind behind it all, but she has a wealth of talent at her disposal as well. Fortunately, Case’s arrangements - done with the help of bandmate Paul Rigby - never make the music feel crowded or unnecessarily complex, allowing the focus to remain on her angelic voice and gifted lyricism.

Throughout its 14 songs, Middle Cyclone frequently feels so comfortable and effortless that it’s easy to forget how rarely an album comes together this well. The record is both approachable and refreshingly unique, a fantastic showcase of Case’s talent as a songwriter, arranger, and singer. Neko Case offers another compelling collection of songs that are just as easy to enjoy as they are to appreciate. Middle Cyclone is a thoroughly great singer/songwriter album and a reminder as to why Case belongs amid indie rock’s royalty.


Dallas Petersen said...

I've been a fan of Neko Case for a few years now. Wonderful voice. This album seems altogether more complete and cohesive compared to previous albums.