Neko Case: Middle Cyclone

Photo: Jason Creps

Beguiling beauty and powerful pipes can’t save Case’s latest from feeling like a disappointment.

Neko Case

Middle Cyclone

Label: Anti-
US Release Date: 2009-03-03
UK Release Date: Available as import

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.