I’ve started writing this review in my head about ten times already but I’ve always stopped short of typing it out because it’s never felt quite right.
At one point I had what I thought was a pretty clever opening in mind: You know how they say “so-and-so’s voice is so good I’d listen to her sing the phone book?” Well, Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone is the closest I’ve come to testing that theory.
That was after I’d first gotten the album and I just didn’t get half of it. I was searching for melodies and choruses without much luck, left admiring the gorgeous vocals of the gorgeous Case but not really feeling the songs.
But I’ve discovered that Middle Cyclone is a grower, and not just a grower but one of the slowest growers I’ve heard. It usually takes me four listens to really get an album… to know the songs well enough that I can just enjoy them rather than learn them. Middle Cyclone has taken about twice that long.
And that’s both good and bad. On the one hand, the reason it’s such a slow grower is that the music is dense and emotional, the instrumentation strange and unexpected, Case’s writing style non-traditional, favoring an unfolding sonic journey over basic verse-chorus-repeat song structure. But on the other hand, sometimes you just want to hear a good song song, ya know?
To be fair, there are a few of those here. The first single, ‘People Got a Lotta Nerve,’ is just perfect — a pure pop symphony (listen below). Opening track ‘This Tornado Loves You,’ sung from the perspective of a deadly but smitten storm, is as provocative as it is catchy (it too is embedded below). And ‘I’m an Animal’ is two splendid minutes of pure erotic charge:
Yes, there are still things I’m still quite sure of
I love you this hour, this hour today
And heaven will smell like the airport
But I may never get there to prove it
So let’s not waste our time thinking how that ain’t fair
I’m an animal, you’re an animal too
And I’m beginning to discover that the less catchy numbers are pretty wonderful, too. ‘Magpie to the Morning’ is simply gorgeous, a sweet shuffle that sounds so lonely and aching you almost start to feel chilly listening to it. Final track ‘Red Tide’ is propulsively cinematic; ‘Vengeance is Sleeping’ coasts along on a sublime acoustic guitar that would be at place in early Simon & Garfunkel.
So why the hesitation to wholeheartedly recommend the album? I think it all boils down to the expectations Case set with her last CD, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. That album is one of the finest I own, a gorgeous record that satisfies the way a good novel does — you simply don’t want to leave the world it creates. In a way I think I resent this album because it isn’t that one.
So there’s my long-winded attempt at a review of a special new album by a very special artist. Ask me again in a few months and I’ll tell you what I really think of it.
Note: Two more quick things about Neko Case… a) Christ, is she hot, and b) she lives on a farm in Vermont not far from my parents.
‘People Got a Lotta Nerve’:
‘This Tornado Loves You’: