Sunday, March 15, 2009

Album Review: Neko Case - Middle Cyclone

Neko Case
Middle Cyclone
Rating: It will go far in the tournament.

The nomadic, ginger-haired songbird moved to a dilapidated Vermont farmhouse to record Middle Cyclone and enlisted the help of some heavy hitters, including fellow Pornographer Carl Newman, M. Ward, and Calexico’s Joey Burns. This is an album that creatively does not venture far from her classic, moody, dark tones, but will haunt you down to your inner core nonetheless. Additional unique contributors to the album included Vermont crickets in “Marais La Nuit” and six lovely, old, unwanted pianos salvaged from Craigslist, rehabbed and brought back to life in the Harry Nilsson cover, “Don’t Forget Me.”

She throws it all on the table in the opening track, “This Tornado Loves You.” With lyrics like “Carved your name across three counties/Smashed every transformer with every trailer/So I pick them up and crash them down/Cuz I miss how you'd sigh yourself to sleep,” you know she’s ready to let it wail, she’s not going to apologize or take it back. She writes with such intense imagery - of swirling cyclones bearing tender love, of vultures lulling you to a safe but dark sleep. It’s simultaneously unsettling and charming. It’s that dangerous seduction of loneliness, an apocalyptic collision between beauty and absolute bone-crushing destruction.

The poppy “People Got a Lotta Nerve” scrapes what’s left of us off the floor as she embraces the inner man-eater by delighting in an unsuspecting man. In the liner notes for this song there is a cartoon of a killer whale sucking down a can of beer in hunting gear. This is the most lighthearted track of the album, albeit one large cannibalistic metaphor.

The title track gets a nice snug spot in the middle of the album. “Middle Cyclone” is a stripped-down, tender, confessional of a proud lover being undone composed of a simple trio of voice, music box, and a guitar. It is followed by the wobbly, atonal “Fever” which makes novel use of a Hawaiian guitar and then my personal runaway hit of the album, “Magpie to the Morning.” It’s a dark lullaby, a cautionary tale told by a magpie of a deceptive vulture and mockingbird. In this song, the vulture scoffs at your noble cause: “Run an airtight mission, a Cousteau expedition / To find a diamond at the bottom of the drain.” I heard bits of this track months ago in a story about the album before it was released and its tantalizing opening measures whetted my appetite for this album like a bell rung for Pavlov’s dog. I would have bought the album for this song alone without hesitation.

The final tracks of the album allude to submission and resolve. In “Pharoahs” she aches for something that never happened which ultimately results in concession with “I want the pharaohs, but there’s only men” (I hear you, sister). But rather than concluding in some clarity or forging a new direction, she finishes in a lateral move. She resolves in “Red Tide” to keep on truckin’ as if to declare that she has traversed every emotion, laid them out from track one to thirteen and now she’s packing it all up and moving on. While maybe not exactly redeeming, it reflects the overriding tone of the album. It’s not heroic. Instead it’s bitter and rough. But there’s a palpable beauty in that, and when it’s all over, she takes stock in what remains and is not ashamed of her scars.

At first Middle Cyclone didn’t grab me and get that “holyf*ckingsh*t this is awesome” response that I got with Furnace Room Lullaby and Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. At best it seemed like a middle of the pack record. But as I give it more play time, I realize that this is vintage Neko Case, circa a time that we all recognize, when we foolishly sabotaged our own opportunities or when we were too proud. She just makes our vices sound so cool because she likens them to tornadoes and sings in a voice with the most haunting richness I’ve ever heard in my lifetime. Miss Case has brought down yet another fine kill, and it deserves to be given a whirl in an audio player in a living room near you.

--Audrey Wen

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