Take a moment and look at that album art again. Go ahead.
That’s Neko Case, perched on the hood of a car (is it a GTO? I have no clue), carrying a fucking sword! Ladies and gentlemen, I know it’s early, but let’s go ahead and give Ms. Case the Album Cover of the Year award. “But,” you say, “you’re not here to review her album art. What about the music?”
I’m getting to that.
I’m going to start with the bad stuff first, and you’ll see why in a minute. The last “song” on Middle Cyclone is “Marais la Nuit”, 30 minutes of farm noises, recorded by Neko on an actual farm. Her farm. Again, that’s 30 minutes of nothing but frogs croaking and crickets chirping. This is pretentious and highly unnecessary. It’s really, really annoying.
So what would it take to forgive “Marais la Nuit”? I tell you exactly: it would take the fourteen tracks that precede it. The entire rest of Middle Cyclone is an unparalleled acheivement, a work of stunning beauty that showcases perfectly Neko Case’s myriad talents. Middle Cyclone is so good apart from Track 15 that I have fallen into the habit of listening to it straight through, skipping the final track, and going right back to “This Tornado Loves You.” My Imaginary Secretary has fled the office today, fearing a repeat of the TV on the Radio incident of last year.
Case’s music is parked (like a car carrying a chick and a big fucking sword) at the intersection of folk, country, pop, and Byrds-style classic rock, and Middle Cyclone, like Fox Confessor Brings the Flood before it, blends those genres into something that is entirely Neko’s. And true to it’s title, Middle Cyclone is all about forces of nature: Neko as a romantic force of nature (she sings “I carved your name across three counties,” on “This Tornado Loves You”) and songs about actual nature, like her cover of Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth,” one of the highlights on an album of highlights. Some songs blend both concepts, as on the advanced single, “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” where Neko not only reminds us that killer whales are called that for a reason but also uses the metaphor to embrace a common perjorative for heartbreaking women: “I’m a man-man-man/ man-man-man-eater/ but still you’re surprised-prised-prised/ when I eat ya.” In other words, if you tangle with a woman who car surfs GTOs (we’ll just pretend it’s a GTO, okay?) with a sword in her hand, you shouldn’t be shocked when you get your head chopped off.
Neko’s ferociousness isn’t all turned outward on Middle Cyclone either. The title track is a simple and gorgeous acoustic ditty with nuggets like “did someone make a fool of me?/ For I could show ’em how it’s done” and “can’t scrape together enough/ to ride the bus to the outskirts/ of the Fact that I Need Love”. Case takes the whipped-raw feeling that one sometimes get from romantic entanglements and makes them elemental – a tornado, messy and seemingly undirected, is following you through three counties, destroying everything in its path trying to work its way back to your arms. It’s a metaphorical trick that seems ingrained in Neko Case’s soul, as many of the songs on Fox Confessor follow a similar pattern.
The album is driven by Neko’s voice, one of the strongest and most beautiful in music. She soars on “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth,” weeps on “Vengeance is Sleeping,” smirks on “People Got A Lot a Nerve,” and does all of the above on “The Pharoahs,” where she sings, “I want the Pharoahs/ but there’s only men.” Neko’s longtime guitarist Paul Rigby handles most of the arranging, building the music perfectly around the mood of her lyrics. This is carried off to devastating efffect on “Prison Girls,” where Neko sings, “I love your long shadows/ and your gunpowder eyes,” adding that the prison girls have “traded more for cigarettes/ than I’ve managed to express.”
If I seem a bit gushy re: Neko Case, let me tell you why: first off, she deserves it. Nobody sings like Neko Case, and her albums are consistently lovely, substantive works. Secondly, look at the women who get attention in music – you’ve got your Miley Cyruses, your JessicAshlee Simpsons, a smattering of first-name-only R&B girls, your Britney Spearses, and so on and so on. It’s not that there aren’t far superior performers out there; if you dig deeper, you’ll find your Kathleen Edwardses, Anis DiFranco, Regina Spektors, and Neko Cases. Neko Case, for my money, is the best of this underrated crop of women, and Middle Cyclone is strong enough on its own to back up my claim.
If you have a friend who is all about Neko Case and you’re thinking you might check her out, get Middle Cyclone and get it now. If this album is not in my top three at year’s end, I’ll eat a pound of steamed brussel sprouts and chase ’em with a bottle of Boone’s Strawberry Whatthefuck. If you wanna try before you buy, come to my place and we’ll open up a bottle of red wine and make my girlfriend sick of Middle Cyclone (it’ll be a nice break from being sick of The Hold Steady and The National). We can let the beauty of the thing wash over us. But we’ll skip the last track, if it’s all the same to you.