One of independent music’s most visible pin-up girls, Neko Case has all the right attributes to make the indie boys swoon (pale skin! red hair! sultry voice! artistic integrity!), and besides being decidedly easy on the eyes, she’s also easy on the ears. Being both attractive and talented, she is difficult to resist in any setting; her rich, clear-throated trumpet of a voice would be a pleasure to behold even with the worst of cacophonies accompanying her. Middle Cyclone disappoints for nearly every aspect of it, save for Case’s voice (and the riotous cover artwork), and is puzzlingly substandard.
This proves all the more perplexing given the album features a smorgasbord of distinguished guest musicians, including members of Calexico, the Sadies, the New Pornographers (of course) and Lilys, as well as M. Ward and the Band’s Garth Hudson. Sonically, Case continues to branch out from the ever-so-slight experimentation she flirted with on her last studio album, 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. While it worked to varying degrees on that album, here it fizzles, consistently marring the fragile beauty of the basic elements of Case’s sound — frugal drums, ringing guitars and, of course, her own siren twang.
Midway through the title track, a music box plays a ragged melody while the guitar stubbornly strums along to its own initial rhythm, giving the impression the piano simply lags behind. Though clearly intentional, it’s also grating. Likewise, the weird synthesizer-sounding solo (actually a MIDI saxophone, played by Los Lobos member Steve Berlin) that slithers through the middle of “Polar Nettles” completely upsets the song’s flow, and its continued presence later in the tune makes listening a chore.
A warbly guitar opens “Fever” and awkwardly abandons ship a minute in for a new rhythm while the old one bleeds out underneath; meanwhile, sour guitar notes pepper the remainder of the song, giving it a slapdash sense of cohesiveness, if one can even call it that. “Fever”, along with “Prison Girls” and “The Pharaohs”, have unfortunate shambolic endings, collapsing into chaos and/or wackiness with no redeeming effect. Part of the impetus for adding all of these unusual textures, tones and asides is surely to inject some humor into Case’s often-deadpan approach, but she accomplished this much more effectively with sly lyrics and charm in previous efforts, like “South Tacoma Way” and “Timber”.
“Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth”, a Sparks cover, simply feels out of place, even with her stylistic transformation (featuring prominent cello and ‘60s-pop gang harmonies reminiscent of the Hollies or the Mamas & Papas). “Magpie to the Morning” has no quirks, but ends up sounding more or less like a Norah Jones song. Jones, like Case, has a great voice, yet much of her musical output classifies as underwhelming: It’s quiet, pleasing and pretty, but ultimately undistinguished. A killer set of pipes can’t always make up for second-rate songs.
The highlights scatter thinly throughout the disc. Album opener, “This Tornado Loves You”, is a wonderful mid-tempo country-pop romp; “The Next Time You Say Forever” features one of the few baubles on the record that actually works: A backmasked toybox plays a tinny melody to introduce the tune, sounding very Icelandic as it does; a cover of Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” is unexpectedly excellent; and the closer, “Red Tide”, spookily conjures up images of fear smelt and death seen, with chilling pedal-point guitar and gravelly sax.
It’s too bad every song on Middle Cyclone doesn’t have the lightning intensity and knife-edged lyrics of its last track. “I’m a ma-ma-man eater / An’ still you’re surprise-prise-prised when I eat ya”, she declares in lead single “People Got a Lotta Nerve”. A jangling, Jayhawks-y guitar melody and strong verse harmonies can’t save this stuttered dud of a lyric, which says little on the subject Hall & Oates and Nelly Furtado hadn’t already covered. Despite a similarly silly metaphor, “I’m an Animal” seems rather promising, but the song suffers from being just too short to gain any real traction. It begins with organ pedal and ends with a lovely guitar figuration, but the rest of the song would need a good four minutes to develop into something interesting, and Case can’t spare the time. She has to fill the rest of the album with cricket chirps — 32 minutes of them — trailing off the end of the album as the final track, “Marais la Nuit”. Though a sweet sentiment that gives the listener a window into the ambiance of the barn where Case did some of the songwriting and recording of the album, the end result sounds like a yoga-relaxation cassette, and my Sounds of Nature tapes are in a box with my snap bracelets, pogs, and VHS copy of Disorderlies in the darkest, dankest corner of my basement.
Some will find the odd twists and tics gracing Middle Cyclone exhilarating and will hail it, like her 2006 release Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, as a defining document from the New Weird America. However, this disjointed collection of tattered ditties pales in comparison to the haunted American gothic soundscapes Case painted on Furnace Room Lullaby and Blacklisted. The starkness and austerity of those two albums were its chief virtues, creating an aura of preciousness that ringed the songs like a halo. Hanging all manner of gewgaws upon them like a cheap Christmas tree destroys that presence of feeling — like daubing Case herself with bright red lipstick, purple eye shadow and thick globules of mascara. Sometimes, beauty is best left unadorned.