Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (anti)
Neko Case has the hardest kind of act to follow: herself. Her previous release Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006) created a new plateau in her career, a convergence of critical acclaim and a modicum of commercial success that somewhat reconciled the two. As a member of the New Pornographers and a successful solo artist, Case is proving to be one of this generation’s most powerful voices.
Case is a musical force of nature and her new album a work about natural forces—the power of instinctual drives. Right out the gate, she sets a forceful tone with “This Tornado Loves You.” Whether it’s about human love or the attraction of massive climatic movements, the pursuit is so relentless that it’s terrifying.
These songs refuse to be pinned down by any one metaphor, instead sprawling wide open to interpretation. “People Got A Lotta Nerve” could be about the revenge of caged animals, or a femme fatale: “I’m a man-eater, and still you’re surprised when I eat you.” The jangly pop guitar hook of the song plays against the lyric cleverly, seeming to lull the subject into unsuspecting.
Her voice hovers around the lyrics, never conveying the intensity of natural forces with strident vocalizing, but delivering them like observations, in the way a bird observes its prey. “I hear the tiniest sparks in the tenderest sound,” she explains in “The Next Time You Say Forever,” and those sparks perpetually hint at their potential to ignite, but even in embryo contain enough heat to singe. In addition to her backing band, guests including M. Ward, the New Pornographers, Los Lobos, Calexico, the Lilys and Giant Sand add their own nuances.
It’s not surprising that Case chooses two idiosyncratic songsters to cover, in Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” and Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me.” The latter turned into a musical experiment, Case searching Craigslist ads offering free pianos, gathering them up in her disused Vermont barn, and creating an impromptu piano orchestra with friends. In contrast to the original’s lush arrangement, the chorus of these intimate instruments makes the bittersweet humor of the original that much more poignant. Like all great songwriters, she says more with less. These songs are the calm in the middle of an emotional whirlwind.