Neko Case
Middle Cyclone
ANTI-

3.5 out of 5 stars

Three years have passed since Neko Case’s sophomore-effort-cum-breakout-success Fox Confessor Brings the Flood introduced thousands to her fiery strain of alt-country songcraft. While her sound is far removed from the syrupy twang of mainstream country artists like Garth Brooks, her sun-bleached guitar solos and fills still lend a sense of western ambiance to her work. Rife with striking imagery and vocal pyrotechnics, Middle Cyclone is a worthy addition to Case’s accomplished musical catalogue, even if it’s one of her least consistent efforts.

“This Tornado Loves You” starts the album with a creative master stroke that narrates an unrequited romance between a natural disaster and a human being. Case’s lyrics are charming: “I have waited / with a glacier’s patience / Smashed every transformer / with every trailer / ’till nothing was standing.” A brisk palm-muted acoustic guitar strum drives the track forward with appropriate gale force, and pizzicato splashes add color to the mix.

Case’s penchant for personification extends into first single, “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” which includes references to elephants, sharks and killer whales. Playfully, she chides a broken-hearted dupe: “I’m a man eater / but you’re still surprised when I eat ya.” Tambourine shakes and major scale guitar riffs paint cheery scenery for Case’s boyish alto.

Her vocals are granted more room for play in “Vengeance Is Sleeping.” Quiet piano taps dot the simple acoustic guitar progressions, and Case coos and caws between the folds. She manages some impressive dynamic and tonal leaps with her aching voice, and even handles her cracks with grace. Fittingly, the final words refer back to her somewhat androgynous character: “I’m not the man you think I am.”

“Fever” marks a curious change in tone, with a lively 3/4 beat and sickly swaths of guitar reverb. The guitar lines’ sour notes and gloomy intervals provide a twisted counterpoint to Case’s overdubbed vocal harmonies. In another shift, “Magpie to the Morning” embraces a slower pace and warmer timbre. Mellow double bass notes give weight to the gossamer guitar phrases, but Case’s voice is charged, soaring into her highest register with conviction.

Thematically, the album’s darkest moment arrives on “Prison Girls.” For Case, the song is unusual, spanning more than five minutes. Its western-noir vibe is also unique, with scale-descending melodies and smokey femme-fatale vocals. Her storytelling is at its most ambitious, filling the mind with vivid passages like “Awakened by a droning voice / I love your long shadows and your gunpowder eyes / Is it a lady or is it a man?” Unfortunately, the track degenerates from an intriguing mood piece to a plodding dirge due to its bloated running time.

On first listen, Middle Cyclone could discourage listeners with its subtlety. Admittedly, a few songs fade into the background (“Polar Nettles” and “I’m an Animal” are such culprits). But further encounters reveal a songwriter with a rich inner world and the eloquence needed to invite others into it. If anything, the “cyclone” motif describes her voice: It’s a force of nature in its own right, equally expressive as a breeze or a hurricane.

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