Styles: noir country, alt-country
Others: Wilco, Loretta Lynn, New Pornographers
Ho-hum, just another rock-solid album from Neko Case. Middle Cyclone is the indie scene starlet’s fifth studio effort, and it's certainly no easy task to meet the bar raised so high by her last two full-lengths, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and Blacklisted. But just like the seemingly effortless vocals for which she’s famed, Case tosses us yet another record full of personality and charm.
Cyclone leads with strength. “This Tornado Loves You” is perhaps the album’s most fully fleshed-out song, clipping along with a full backing band, as Case puts her voice through the paces. Showcasing her range right away, the song builds and culminates with Neko alternating between her immaculate full-throat wail, “What will make you believe me?” and cooing the titular line, “this tornado loves you.” This theme of love twisted up with destruction is exemplary of Case as a lyricist -- rarely does a track, however pretty, go by without a touch of blackness.
“The Next Time You Say Forever” continues this theme with seemingly romantic music-box chimes, offset by one of the record’s most penetrating lines: “Peeling in the heat. Vanish in the rain/ The next time you say ‘forever,’ I will punch you in your face.” Later, “Polar Nettles” carries on with the poignant image of “The Sistine Chapel painted with a Gatling gun.” “Fever” too contains hints of violence, with a tale of a woman hoping to elude a threatening male pursuer: “I caught his words in my open mouth, I gagged and choked and spit them out.”
Indeed, no one captures the dingy genre of Noir Country quite like Case. “Prison Girls,” the darkest song on Cyclone, goes so far as to feature the infamous “devil’s interval” (a.k.a. tritone, diminished fifth, or augmented fourth) in its verse melody. Usually coveted by metalhead screamers, hearing a nuanced presentation of the ominous note is a welcome change of pace. However, being the longest track at 5:26, “Prison Girls” drags slightly, especially as Case milks the album’s best couplet over and over, “I love your long shadows/ And your gunpowder eyes.”
It is one of only a few minor missteps. Another is the superfluous closing track “Marais la Nuit,” which consists of 31 minutes, 39 seconds of swamp creatures chirping and croaking. Nice if you’re having trouble sleeping, though not at all necessary. But on the whole, these brief lulls are overshadowed by the ample highs of instant staples like “Tornado,” “I’m An Animal,” and “The Pharaohs.” Sure, Fox Confessor and Blacklisted are still dueling for the title of “masterstroke” in Case’s oeuvre, but Middle Cyclone still stands out as another strong entry from a woman who is more than proving her mettle as a revered indie veteran.
1. This Tornado Loves You
2. The Next Time You Say Forever
3. People Got a Lotta Nerve
4. Polar Nettles
5. Vengeance Is Sleeping
6. Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth
7. Middle Cyclone
9. Magpie to the Morning
10. I'm an Animal
11. Prison Girls
12. Don't Forget Me
13. The Pharaohs
14. Red Tide
15. Marais La Nuit