Neko Case – Middle Cyclone

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Neko Case has a phenomenal voice. It could bring down skyscrapers or start forest fires, I have no doubt. Her songwriting can be inconsistent, and her genre-hopping is not always my cup of tea, but when she’s on top of her game, she is nigh unstoppable. Case, as everyone should know, once drummed for Vancouver band Cub, and has been a recording member of the New Pornographers since 1997. A lot of people like prior album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, but that one didn’t quite do it for me. This album, though, is amazing. Maybe one day I will go back to Fox Confessor.

What I Think of This Album

The final track on Middle Cyclone – “Marais La Nuit” – is a 30+ minute long field recording made at a pond on Case’s New England farm. While tacked on at the end and not really something to listen to often, it is nonetheless central to the album’s feel and themes, though deceptively so. Case fashions her album around the natural world, but the gentle frog croaking that peppers “Marais” is worlds removed from what Case sings about. No gentle wood sprite or crunchy hippie, Case traffics in destruction:  animals maim and kill, and weather phenomena wreak havoc.

It’s not for nothing that Case tunefully reminds you that she is a “Man, man, man / Man, man, man-eater” on the winning “People Got a Lotta Nerve” or compares herself – obsessive, unrelenting – to a tornado on opening track, “This Tornado Loves You” (“Carved your name across three counties / Ground it in with bloody hides / Their broken necks will line the ditch / ‘Til you stop it, stop it / Stop this madness”).

The tenth track is plainly titled “I’m an Animal;” it is also plainly a phenomenal song, with a Byrdsy intro (over an uncredited organ), booming drums, driving bass, chorus backing vocals, and Case’s voice goes through all of it like neutrinos. “Fever” is a spooky tune with references to spiders and ants (it’s not hard to imagine this as a Belly song).

Her choice of covers is similarly informed, with a masterful reworking of Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” (once also covered by Depeche Mode) placed almost halfway through the disc, and a piano-heavy run through Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” (with the memorable line “And when we’re older / And full of cancer”).

Besides the focus on weather and animals, Case offers up lyrical gems. The stunning “Magpie to the Morning” is resplendent in dusky tones, with Case singing “You run an airtight mission / A Cousteau expedition / To find a diamond at the bottom of the drain.” The atmospheric “Prison Girls” finds Case repeating “I love your long shadows / And your gunpowder eyes.” Her voice shines on “The Pharaohs,” a collaboration with the Sadies.

Even where Case expresses vulnerability, she maintains some semblance of control and asserts her powerful agency:  on “The Next Time You Say Forever” she warns “The next time you say forever / I will punch you in the face / Just because you don’t believe it / Doesn’t mean I didn’t mean it,” and while she admits “I choke it back /  How much I need love” (girl, same) on “Middle Cyclone,” she also acknowledges “Can’t give up actin’ tough / It’s all that I’m made of.” Likewise, she candidly offers “Yes there are things that I’m still so afraid of / But my courage is roaring like the sound of the sun” on “I’m an Animal.”

The music is matched perfectly to Case’s lyrics. Neither pop nor country, not muscular and far from fragile, the songs propel Case forward like a wave, lifting her above hazards and carrying her to her chosen destination. Incapable of being overshadowed, Case permits others’ performances to shine – the guitar work on “Vengeance is Sleeping” by Paul Rigby is delicate, and he also lays down a hypnotic, almost motorik rhythm on “Tornado.” Joey Burns (Calexico, Giant Sand) adds some colorful cello to “Forever.” The drumming on peppy “Lotta Nerve” by Barry Mirochnik is superb. Steve Berlin of Los Lobos provides some unusual “midi-sax” to “Polar Nettles,” and the massed voices on the Sparks song are majestic, with more fine work from Burns. Other times, the contributions seem beside the point; the 6 person backing chorus of famous names on “Tornado” does very little (not that Case needs them to do more). Indeed, on the title track, Case simply handles all the vocals herself.

The guest list on this thing is daunting. Daunting, I tell you. Case must be a very nice person to get so many talented and famous people to help her out. In addition to the folks already named, and in no particular order, Carl Newman of the New Pornographers sings on two songs; Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor sing on a lot of songs; Rachel Flotard (Visqueen) sings a bunch, too; Lucy Wainwright Roche (daughter of Loudon Wainwright IIII and Suzzy Roche of the Roches) likewise lends her voice several times; Tom Ray of the Bottle Rockets played bass on multiple tracks; Kurt Heasley of the Lilys (who has also worked with the Apples in Stereo and the Ladybug Transistor) can be heard on background vocals often; Tara Szczygielski played the violin, as she has for the New Pornographers; Jon Rauhouse (who has played with the Old 97s, Visqueen, the Waco Brothers, Giant Sand, and Calexico) did some work on the guitar; Garth Hudson of the Band played piano twice and the organ once; M. Ward (She & Him) played guitar on two songs; vocalist Sarah Harmer (who has worked with the Weakerthans) appears once; Howie Gelb of Giant Sand plays the piano and the guitar a bit; and John Convertino of Calexico and Giant Sand sat behind the kit for one track.

The Best Thing About This Album

“People Got A Lotta Nerve,” for being the poppiest song in history to reference killer whales.

Release Date

March, 2009

The Cover Art

BADASS. How can you not like this?!? The hand-drawn text works nicely, as does the grey field. It’s a 1967 Mercury Cougar, in case you were wondering. The art is by Case and Kathleen Judge.

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