CD Review of Middle Cyclone by Neko Case
Neko Case: Middle Cyclone
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Neko Case: Middle Cyclone

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

t’s a pretty wide divide that spans intimacy and insurgency, but credit Neko Case with covering both bases with such ease and proficiency. Having overcome any initial stereotypes that would have her cast simply as part of the new breed of country crooner, Case has transcended her previous associations – most notably her on-again, off-again membership in the New Pornographers – and built a stellar solo career that’s made her one of a select group of innovative artists whose every effort is eagerly anticipated.

That’s a pretty big burden to put on any performer, but in a solo career that’s tallied four studio sets and two live discs over the course of a dozen years, Case has almost always lived up to expectations and fashioned some of the most intriguing music of the millennium in the process. Her latest album, Middle Cyclone, continues that trajectory and makes for an ideal follow-up to 2006’s critically acclaimed Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, an album that elevated her chart standing and gave her a modicum of wider recognition. Even so, it’s hardly the stuff that makes for mass appeal, given a sound that mostly looks inward, a low-lit shimmer that often alternates between a drift and a drone. There are exceptions – the flourish and affirmation that pulsates through "This Tornado Loves You" and the surging, celebratory refrain of "People Gotta Lotta Nerve," an apt anthem for the disenfranchised – but for the most part, it’s a study in thoughtful circumspect, quietly assured but with a troubled perspective nevertheless.

Neko Case

Case enlists an impressive supporting cast to aid in her arched endeavors – longtime associate Kelly Hogan, the equally ubiquitous M. Ward, folk singer Sarah Harmer, the Band’s Garth Hudson and members of such cutting-edge combos as Calexico, the Sadies, Giant Sand, Los Lobos, and, not surprisingly, the New Pornographers – but, even so, Case commands practically all the attention, her singular presence firmly settled in the spotlight. Even when she delves into covers – Harry Nilsson’s sad yet stately "Don’t Forget Me" and Sparks’ loping (and loopy) "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth" – any distinction between outside sources and Case’s own compositions becomes all but negligible.

There are some odd moments, to be sure, specifically the theatrical turns on "Prison Girls," which sounds like it was plucked from a Kurt Weil musical, and closing track "Marais La Nuit," all ambient sound that comes across like celestial chirping. And while that’s odd, it’s all right; with 15 tracks, there are more than enough sounds to sample. Middle Cyclone may not be Case’s ultimate masterpiece – that’s likely yet to come – but it’s exceptional nevertheless.

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