Neko Case’s sound is timeless in an idiosyncratic way. Much of her music would have sounded right at home around Tom Joad’s roadside campfire – sans production, and yet, I can imagine some future generation of die-hard music lovers marveling at how well her songs have stood the test of time – including production. Of course the folks who appreciate Case’s music will be partial to odd references, gothic imagery and the skewed world view of the composer.
At 38 years old Case has a long and impressive resume and has developed a signature sound that is undeniably hers. When working with The New Pornographers Case’s role is singer. With her band The Boyfriends she is the leader and writer of an alt-country unit. On her own she is queen of the other-worldly ballad. Her last album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood received critical raves and won Case a larger fan base but with Middle Cyclone she has hit full stride. As a lyricist Case is wise and witty. She can coin the ultimate sardonic turn of phrase then follow it with language of great poignancy. Her music is a collision of pretty-faced melodies and minor key underbellies. In essence she pens stories of complex personalities, contradictory behaviors, and conflicting imagery and finds the music to match.
Case is a lover of animals – her website declares she was raised by wild beasts – and Middle Cyclone balances human behavior against the instinct of the animal world. “People Have A Lot of Nerve” is both an expose of the stupidity of humans who deny the primal behaviors of wild caged animals and a revenge anthem for the brutes. She sings “I’m a man-eater, and still you’re surprised when I eat you.” Case takes the subject further on “I’m An Animal” in which she explores the immutable behaviors that expose humans as the animals we are. At times her lyrics become ambiguous; is she really talking about animals or has she crossed over to our own species? The fabulously evocative “Prison Girls” even puts her human characters in cages.
Often it is said that what distinguishes us from the rest of the animal world is our ability to speak, to reason, and to love. Neko Case suggests instinct plays a much larger role in love than reason or communication. “This Tornado Loves You” and “Middle Cyclone” uses nature at its most untamed to represent the confusion, desperation, and danger involved in seeking and keeping love. Our ability to communicate deserts us when we most need it. Case uses bucolic nature as metaphor as on the lovely “Magpie To the Morning” and throws in a cover of The Spark’s cautionary tale “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Nature.” The addition of Harry Nillson’s “Don’t Forget About Me” is bittersweet and funny and features an orchestra of abandoned pianos that Case has collected in her drafty barn/home studio.
Middle Cyclone features what has become standard Neko Case production. Lots of reverb sends drums crashing into the distance and guitars echoing through the rafters. Part of the recording was done at Case’s Vermont farm barn and you can practically hear the wind blowing through the boards. Case also recorded in Tucson, Arizona where members of Calexico joined in. Other guests include Lucy Wainwright Roche, M. Ward, Sarah Harmer, and Garth Hudson. Case’s touring band handles most of the work. The album is full of nuance and mystery including a music box, organ and Hawaiian guitar, and Cases graceful vocals. Wrapping the whole production is fifteen minutes of frogs and crickets recorded at Case’s pond. One can almost see Tom Joad curled at its edge.