The fifteen-track Middle Cyclone is Neko Case's first release since 2006's Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, the best-reviewed and best-selling album of her career. Middle Cyclone was produced by Case with Darryl Neudorf and recorded in Tucson, Brooklyn, Toronto, and Vermont. It features Case backed by her core band - guitarist Paul Rigby, bassist Tom V. Ray, backing vocalist Kelly Hogan, multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse, and drummer Barry Mirochnick - along with numerous guests including M. Ward, Garth Hudson, Sarah Harmer, and members of The New Pornographers, Los Lobos, Calexico, The Sadies, Visqueen, The Lilys, and Giant Sand, among others. In addition to twelve new songs written by Case, Middle Cyclone includes covers of 'Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth' by Sparks, and "Don't Forget Me" by Harry Nilsson.
Review by Andrew Leahey
Neko Case looks formidable on the cover of Middle Cyclone, brandishing a sword in one hand while crouching low on a muscle car's hood. It's mostly camp, of course -- the sort of superwoman image Quentin Tarantino might have used for Death Proof's ad campaign -- but it also draws contrast with the songwriter's previous albums, two of which featured moody shots of Case sprawled on the floor, ostensibly knocked out. Middle Cyclone isn't the polar opposite of Blacklisted's downcast Americana; there are still moments of heartbreak on this release, and Case channels the sad cowgirl blues with all the rustic nuance of Patsy Cline. Multiple years in the New Pornographers' employ have brightened her outlook, however, and Middle Cyclone balances its melancholia with some of the most pop-oriented choruses of Case's career. "I'm a man-man-maneater," she sings during "People Got a Lotta Nerve," a snappy nugget of harmonies and jangled guitar that helps strengthen her Mercury Cougar-riding cover pose. The mammal metaphors continue with "I'm an Animal," where a coed choir hums a wordless, hooky refrain. Such songs are still rife with earth tones, perhaps preferring the Southern comfort of roots music to the sparkle of Carl Newman's power pop, but their venture into brighter territory is both assured and tuneful.
Of course, Neko Case already explored the animal world with 2006's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, and Middle Cyclone devotes more time to weather, nature, and the stormy atmospherics of her backup band. There are few voices as hauntingly beautiful as Case's alto, a siren call fashioned from country's might and pop's melody, and she trains those tones over a number of semi-ballads, from the cinematic "Prison Girls" (a country-noir love letter to someone with "long shadows and gunpowder eyes") to the sparse title track. She does a surprise duet with chirping birds during "Polar Nettles" -- a result of the pastoral recording sessions, which took place in a barn -- before offering up a cover of Sparks' "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth," which very well may be the album's mission statement. There's still room to tackle love from the perspective of different characters -- a man in "Vengeance Is Sleeping," a disbeliever in "The Next Time You Say Forever," a smitten wind vortex in "This Tornado Loves You" -- but nature remains at the forefront of Middle Cyclone, whose 14 songs conclude with a half-hour field recording of chirping crickets and frogs. Moody, cinematic, and engaging throughout, Cyclone is another tour de force from Neko Case, if not as immediately arresting as Fox Confessor.
Neko Case is a force of nature. Her voice can knock you over-- it's one of the strongest in any genre. She has immense control and surprising physical and stylistic range, able to jump from cowgirl honkytonk to pop muse to Americana banshee with ease and grace. However, on her fifth studio album, Middle Cyclone , she literally becomes a force of nature: Case sings opener "This Tornado Loves You" from the point of view of an actual tornado, tearing up trailer parks and cutting a 65-mile swath in search for its beloved: "I carved your name across three counties," she sings defiantly as the guitars whip around her and the snare patters frantically, suggesting destruction can be a demonstration of love. Later she's a cyclone, an elephant, a killer whale, a dove, a magpie, and possibly a mollusk. "I'm an animal," she sings on "I'm an Animal". "You're an animal, too."
Middle Cyclone is another strong entry in her strange catalog, a culmination of some of the lyrical and musical concerns she's been exploring since Blacklisted , when she started receiving full songwriting credit. That 2002 album marked a turning point for Case as she abandoned the straightforward country-soul of 2000's Furnace Room Lullaby for a spookier sound that favors odd song structures and odder imagery about serial killers, downed planes, and automobile accidents. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood developed those ideas and Middle Cyclone further refines them. It plays almost like a culmination of her career this decade, the final installment of a trilogy about the weird American wilderness of her mind.
Listeners more familiar with Case's previous work will appreciate the tendrils of mythology that reach from this album into her recent catalog. With its first-verse image of a man "filleted on the stairs," "Polar Nettles" recalls the bloodspatter lyrics of "Deep Red Bells" on Blacklisted ; "Red Tide" and "Magpie to the Morning" play with critter imagery similar to "Lion's Jaws" and "Maybe Sparrow" on Fox Confessor . In fact, "People Got a Lotta Nerve" sounds like a sequel of sorts to "The Tigers Have Spoken", from her live album of the same name. Both concern zoo animals who rebel against their prisons, and both end, tragically and inevitably, in bullets. The album, however, doesn't demand any special context to be enjoyed: It sounds impressive and immersive on its own, so those who've only heard her name will find much to admire in her skewed songs. But because Case doesn't really write hooks and typically avoids the standard verse-chorus-verse song structure, Middle Cyclone may take even longer than previous albums to reveal their charms and mysteries.
What ties everything together is her unmistakable voice. Pushing herself, she shows off a few new tricks in these songs. On "People Got a Lot of Nerve", she fashions one of the album's best hooks from the repeated syllables of "man man man eater", then ascends a vertiginous scale on the bridge, hitting that impossibly high note with no loss of tone. She layers her voice to create an airy chorus on "Magpie to the Morning" and a dramatic gospel on her cover of Sparks' "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth". "Prison Girls" may be her best performance here, with an emphatic vocal that gives the chorus-- "I love your long shadows and your gunpowder eyes"-- new meaning and greater menace with each repetition.
Case remains her own best muse, a strong, feminine presence who demands you meet her songs halfway (she calls herself a control freak in every article I've read), but her band deserves credit for creating the ambient, dark-night setting in which her tales of murder and animals sound natural and compelling. Middle Cyclone features the same core group she's been playing with for years-- including guitarist Paul Rigby, bass player Tom V. Ray, multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse, and back-up singer Kelly Hogan-- along with a supporting cast that includes regulars Garth Hudson of the Band, M. Ward, Sarah Harmer, and members of Calexico, the Sadies, and Giant Sand. With an increasing familiarity between them, this cast finds new ways to sell her songs and couch Case's vocals in unpredictable arrangements. "People Got a Lotta Nerve" kicks off with a chiming Byrds riff that makes it impossible not to perk up and listen to the song, and a strangled guitar line staggers through "Fever", implying an unnamed threat just off camera. Much of the album is acoustic and subdued, and a few of the slower songs start to sag a bit. The album picks up considerably towards the end, as "Prison Girls" lurches ominously like film noir and "Red Tide" generates a rumbling garage-rock stomp.
Middle Cyclone ends with "Marais la Nuit", which translates to "The Night Marsh". True to its title, it is 30 minutes of frog noises that Case recorded at her farm in Vermont, just outside the barn where most of these sessions were held. It's not surprising that her animal lyrics would break down into real animal sounds, and as chill-out music for any domesticated wildlife in your home, it's not unpleasant. It is, however, nearly as long as the album proper. Its inclusion show just how thoroughly Case has imagined her own little world on these three albums and how thoroughly she rules that realm.
— Stephen M. Deusner, March 3, 2009