Really, the Middle Cyclone experience begins when you first hold the album in your hands and behold the killer cover art. And the album’s title is fitting. Middle Cyclone picks you up, spins you around, lets you think about it for a while and then dumps you in a field at dusk to find your own way home.
Shooting out of the gates with “This Tornado Loves You”, the tone is set for a pensive but exciting ride. In traditional Case form, her lyrics are consistently sharp and well-formed. Lines like “The next time you say forever I’ll punch you in your face” and “If you’re not by now dead and buried you’re most certifiably married” slice and dice, serving notice that our red-haired heroine won’t be mincing her message. The strength of her rhythmic, honest poetry is refreshing, seeing as most of the relationship-focused schlock on the radio is based around rhyming “tonight” and “all right” or “breaking my heart” and “tearing me apart.”
While Middle Cyclone lacks some of the etherealism that has underscored the majority of Case’s previous work, there are moments of otherworldliness in very unexpected places. “Fever” is a particularly strong example. It’s easy to feel a sense of comfort wash over as you listen to Case croon “I love your long shadows and your gunpowder eyes” over and over on “Prison Girls”.
Rather than assemble a 50/50 blend of lyricism and instrumentation, Case utilizes simple orchestration to emphasize her eloquence. There is no dearth of talented musicians on this album — the liner notes are a veritable “Who’s Who” of the indie rock universe. The amazing thing is that the notable characters are present as side players only. At times, it’s difficult to even identify anything else going on in a song, above Case’s haunting cadence. She has the connections. She has the admiration. But she doesn’t need either to turn out amazing work.
The only misstep on Middle Cyclone can be found in Sparks cover “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth”. The bridge almost completely redeems the entire song, but all in all, the cheese factor is a bit high. Another minor quibble: “People Got a Lot of Nerve”, the album’s first single, is not representative of the depth and flow of the rest of the album. These two lesser songs, however, don’t distract too much from the cohesion of the album.
To make up for any sonic shortfalls, Case rewards a listener’s loyalty with almost 32 minutes of frogs, crickets and chirping sounds recorded in the evening by a pond near her home. I have a feeling urbanites the world over will play the closing track on warm summer evenings and pretend they’re not really listening to cars and ambulances.
Middle Cyclone redeems the patience of Neko Case fans, who have anxiously awaited her first solo release in almost two years. The smooth, thoughtful instrumentation serves as a loose guide for spectacularly crafted lyrics. Ms. Case’s two biggest assets, her painfully good voice and her sharp songwriting, are showcased in grand fashion. This album will almost certainly earn a spot among your frequently played albums by the end of the spring. (ANTI-, 2009)
By Katie Koivisto