Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (Anti-, 2009)

You could argue that, given her solo career and her contributions to The New Pornographers, nobody has been part of more good music over the past decade than Neko Case. Certainly her 2002 CD Blacklisted will figure prominently when I make my top 10 list for the decade, and if I make a similar list of concerts, her performance at the Bowery Ballroom on Valentine's Day 2005 would rank at or near the top. Her new album Middle Cyclone is flawed in places, but Case still expands on her reputation for alluringly cryptic lyrics and haunting melodies with a number of excellent songs.

While most of her early solo work would qualify as country, Case has incorporated more straightforward folk and mellow alternative rock into her sound over the years. Middle Cyclone continues this progression. The one intriguing instrumental addition is the "piano orchestra." Case filled a barn on her Vermont property with pianos, and together with a bunch of friends (including two New Pornographers and Garth Hudson of The Band) had all of the pianos playing simultaneously on several of the songs. In general it's more of a curiosity than an enhancement, but it does work to great effect on her cover of Harry Nilsson's "Don't Forget Me."

Case has generally done a good job of balancing the faster and slower songs on her previous albums, but on Middle Cyclone there is a marked difference in quality between them. The more upbeat songs here, other than the closing song "Red Tide," don't do all that much for me. The opening song "This Tornado Loves You" and the single "People Got a Lotta Nerve" both suffer from choruses that sound forced, and the attempted environmental anthem "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth" certainly means well but comes across as preachy. By contrast, a number of the quieter, moodier songs are simply superb, and rank among Case's best work. Songs like "The Next Time You Say Forever," "Polar Nettles," "Vengeance Is Sleeping," "Middle Cyclone," and "Don't Forget Me" would each by themselves justify the purchase of the album. A full album of that would have been truly special.

Curiosly, Case appends a half hour of outdoor sounds, mostly consisting of croaking frogs, to the end of the album. A minute or two might have been interesting, but there is such a thing as overkill.

Middle Cyclone
may be uneven, but the good parts of it are exceptional and more than outweigh the weaker material. Neko Case can be extraordinarily good when the spirit moves her, and this album has more than enough examples of that to make it worth multiple listenings.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

Neko Case gives an overview of the songs on her new album.

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