Neko Case - Middle Cyclone

Bill Cummings 18/03/2009

Rating: 4/5

Until 2006 Neko Case was a long-time cult favourite of the American alternative music scene, the release of her last album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood not only brought her the usual plaudits but this time well deserved sales figures too: this was Case's first album to debut in the billboard, going on to sell over 250,000 copies. Her new album Middle Cyclone was produced by Case and Darryl Neudorf in the heat of Tuscan, Brooklyn, Toronto and Vermont,. Case clearly has quite a few friends, it features a backing cast of what seems like hundreds: guitarist Paul Rigby, bassist Tom V Ray and drummer Barry Mirochnick alongside numerous well known guests including M Ward, Garth Hudson, Sarah Harmer and members of The New Pornographers, Calexico, Visqueen, Giant Sand, The Lilys and the Sadies.

'Middle Cyclone' sounds like an open letter to the listener and a fair few ex lovers, it's another trip into the rather complicated psyche of Miss Case and her cohorts and in the main it's fascinating. Neko Case has a unique gift in her voice: at times imbued with joy, at times quivering and haunted it's comparable to the multi dimensional tones of P J Harvey, the dark artsy emotional brevity of Patti Smith or the countrified melancholia of Kristen Hersh. Hell if Feist's sweet melodies can make a break in the mainstream surely Case has a chance too?

The record's first half is full of startling vocal performances, and finely produced, multi layered songs, indeed the triple one two three punch of the first three tracks is hard to beat. From delectable opener 'This Tornado Loves You' to the simply wonderful darkly comic imagery of 'The Next Time You Say Forever' that depicts a crumbling relationship (“the next time you say forever I will punch you in the face”), the album's most commercial moment, comes with the up-tempo melodies of 'People Got A Lotta Nerve' whose spiralling guitars sway as Case paints herself as the self styled 'man eater' and notes that men are surprised when she 'eats ya.' It's echoed later on by 'I'm An Animal' that puts you in the mind of a couple circling each other like the tigers in the sweltering Serengeti. Elsewhere the mood is more sedate, the homespun pianos of western tragedy 'Polar Nettles', the down tempo gorgeous guitar pickings of the introspective 'Vengeance Is Sleeping', which longs and claws for a former lover.

There are two covers here too: Case's rustic take on 'Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth' by Sparks is partially successful, rising to whirring crescendo in its second half, its echo preaching message given duality in the context of an album that deals with broken relationships. While her version of Harry Nillsson's 'Don't Forget Me' sits well with Case as the heartbroken outlaw, her brave vocal breathe new life into these words painted with hues of dark and light: 'When we're older and full of cancer/Come on now get happy/Coz nothing lasts forever but I will always love you'.

Parts of Middle Cyclone's second half are slightly more forgettable consisting of slower or more mid-tempo slices of brooding alt Americana, but there is still quality present: each effort enveloping your mind on repeated listens. The literate streams of consciousness of work stomp 'Fever' are slightly reminiscent of Kristy McColl, the strum of 'Magpie in the Morning' gorgeously tip toes into a sublime, aching chorus whose naturalistic imagery runs through your nightmares. The twanging guitars of 'Prison Girls' is the sound of a prisoner running her fingers across her cell bars and singing a narrative of love lost ('I love your long shadows and your gunpowder eyes'), although less successful is the sighing plaintive balladry of 'Pharaohs' that feels like well trodden ground here.

At fifteen tracks Middle Cyclone is an exhausting listen, it's probably a little too long, every bar is invested with emotion, and this is a record of love, loss and life that takes place in the hinterlands of America's dark underbelly. At its worst it's only forgettable, and slightly self indulgent: at its best it's a record that you must hear, by one of America's most unique voices, it's a well crafted set of country hewn songs that throw you into the swirling eye of a storm that is Neko Case's emotional barometer, and I for one thoroughly enjoyed it.

Release date: 03/03/09