- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Neko Case
Middle Cyclone

Neko Case is widely adored for her voice, her haunting melodies, her goofily enchanting stage presence and, let’s face it, her alt-rock good looks. But this tends to obscure her standing as one of the most evocative, emotionally engaging lyricists at work today.

“Middle Cyclone” doesn’t burrow into the consciousness with the immediacy of Miss Case’s previous album, “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.”

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The two albums at first appear to have much in common: the bleak emotional landscape of the lyrics; the barrages of nerve-jangling guitar; Miss Case’s cool, controlled singing style. But where “Fox Confessor” played like a book of third-person stories — part Sherwood Anderson, part Flannery O’Connor — “Middle Cyclone” is more intimate and daring.

On “This Tornado Loves You,” she imagines the meteorological phenomenon as a force driven by emotion, which at first seems a wry take on obsession. However, by the end of the driving, pleading track, which includes a sweetly plucked cello interlude that sounds like a sample from a game show, she has laid out the central theme of the album: that love is a chaotic, destructive force not to be trifled with.

It’s a message Miss Case seems uniquely positioned to deliver. The unmistakable keening timbres of her voice impart pleading, desperation and loss without really trying. On “Vengeance Is Sleeping,” Miss Case takes the perspective of a man brooding on a past love. The man is torn between longing for the object of his affection and missing the powers of his own mind to contrive feelings of love. Miss Case sings:

Vengeance built me hastily
and I dragged a clanging notion, I was nobody …
All I had was my invention
And my love invented all of you
Oh, look what thoughts can do.

It’s the kind of double-movement of consciousness one might locate in a John Cheever short story, but Miss Case spins it out in a three-minute track with guitar arpeggios and piano.

The title track, “Middle Cyclone,” seems like a companion to “Vengeance Is Sleeping.” It is presented simply with guitar, vocals and the churning of music boxes — a sweet, tinkling sound that manages to sound mockingly, excruciatingly cruel. Miss Case sings:

I can’t give up acting tough
It’s all that I’m made of
Can’t scrape together quite enough
To ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love.

Miss Case’s voice and arrangements (with guitarist Paul Rigby) provide relief from this crushing pessimism, as do the two cover songs on “Middle Cyclone.”

A version of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” features the contributions of a piano orchestra — a collection of a half-dozen pianos Miss Case assembled via ads on Craigslist — in keeping with the broken-but-beautiful aesthetic that pervades the album.

Miss Case also covers another mid-1970s track, “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth,” by Sparks, which contrasts a gorgeous choir of voices — including Miss Case’s longtime backing vocalist, Kelly Hogan — with cello and steel guitar.

Miss Case concludes the album with a track called “Marais la Nuit,” literally “night swamp.” It’s a half-hour’s worth of frogs and crickets intended, it would appear, as a bandwidth-sucking prank on illegal downloaders. However, after the harrowing emotional ride of “Middle Cyclone,” it comes as a bit of a relief.

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