Neko Case – [Album]

Monday, 23 March 2009

Neko Case is having a party, and you get to listen in. While it’s not unusual to have collaborations on albums—this being her fifth—Case takes what usually is a get-together with a few friends and makes it an all-out reunion party. Joining her on her latest LP are not only her New Pornographer band mates, but also members of Calexico and The Sadies, not to mention a smattering of solo artists: M. Ward, Sarah Harmer and Lucy Wainright Roche. The result is a harmonic hoedown (she lives on a farm, it’s a fair metaphor) and your ears are invited.

Middle Cyclone feels like night music—it reminds you of empty interstates winding around city lights and stars, of lost whimsical places that made you feel more of the world around you. Case provides ambient, otherworldly vocals against a shifting background of instrumentals that move from more acoustic to a classic country flavor, to mason-jar-captured natural sounds. There’s a pop to the music, and it feels nearly hopeful, like it hopes to be hopeful. It’s the feel of daring to take in a moment despite the world crashing down around you.

And as cool as that sounds, the strength of this album, and the reason any of the above really works, is Case’s vocal work and lyricism. Take, for example, the second song of the album, “The Next Time You Say Forever.” Case sings poignantly, “the next time you say forever I’ll punch you in your face/ Just because you don’t believe it doesn’t mean I didn’t mean it.“ What fun jaded lyrics! And that’s just a quickie between tracks; a moment of heated anger at a love gone bad, and like that, it’s gone. Then there’s “Vengeance is Sleeping”—which is just a cool title— with its twinkling guitar intro giving an aspect of indie, and sporting lyrics like “Vengeance built me hastily, and I drag the clanging notion I was nobody, nobody.” If Case had made this album with her just singing acapella, I don’t think much would be lost. The instrumentals here are great, but her lilting and original vocal quality plus her songwriting have a strength all their own, enough to probably support themselves and still make a good album.

And to keep up equal opportunity, let’s talk about the instrumentals, which are worth noting. Her buddies from various bands definitely let their presence be known, as the album takes listeners on an instrumental journey spanning different paces, different feelings, and different genres. “Fever,” for example, is kind of funky, with a stop-and-go beat that’s heavy and prominent. It builds up around a solo chime in to a Shangri-La palace of sound. The Harry Nilsson cover “Don’t Forget Me” starts out with an older sentimentality, with touches of an old country song—something haunting and remorseful, almost a sense of giving up in a beautiful setting. Like watching the hero ride into the sunset music. “And Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” is epic and bold, almost cinematic with its orchestra along with plinking acoustic guitar and undertow drum work. Then there’s just a bulk of songs which showcase varying styles of folksy acoustic work, i.e. “Magpie to the Morning” and “This Tornado Loves You.”

To close out the album is the song titled “Marais La Nuit,” which is simply a recording of the outdoors at Case’s Vermont farm. Yes, this might seem like an odd way to cap off an album, with a chorus of frogs and crickets singing in the dark for no less than thirty minutes. But if this album is a labor of love—and most good ones are—then it’s got to be a culmination of things loved. Cool nights in dark woods, good friends jamming out in old barns, new vinyl records, and as always, good music.


Neko Case – Middle Cyclone is out now. Buy it on Amazon.


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