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Neko Case

"Middle Cyclone" (ANTI-) -- 3.5 STARS

By Matt E. Sachs, Contributing Writer

For singer-songwriter Neko Case, writing alt-country songs teeming at the brim with a mixture of nature, love, and free-spirited humor is all but, well, second nature. On her new album, “Middle Cyclone,” her skillful imagery—featuring killer whales and lovesick tornadoes—continues to prevail, bringing forth an album full of integrity and purity rarely found on an artist’s seventh studio release. While Case remains true to the form established on her previous work, the original appeal of her ethereal voice and fanciful melodies has not yet been lost.

Originally from Alexandria, VA, the 38-year-old singer came to popularity after her work on “Mass Romantic,” the first studio recording by Vancouver-based indie rock sensation The New Pornographers. However, with the release of her first solo album shortly after, Case was able to find her niche in her own, inventive form of Southern music. Removed from the lush pop arrangements and multiple vocalists of The New Pornographers, Case is able to fill the void on her solo albums with her own sultry harmonies and unexpected turns.

Case’s talents are showcased on the album’s first single, “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” which begins as a lively pop tune reminiscent of the cheerful, British ballads of The Smiths. The laidback guitar riff and cheery melody flow effortlessly into the bridge, where sudden chord changes, varying vocal register, and clever lyrics full of internal rhymes result in an unexpected divergence. The instrumental fade out adds an eloquent touch to the end of the song. In “This Tornado Loves You,” the raw force of Case’s melodies breaks out of its cage. The song begins with constant guitar tremolo and quick, brushed cymbal strokes, feeling like an orchestrated locomotive marching lazily through the countryside. Once Case enters with her famed pathos, the train never stops rolling. The song’s morphological character is only briefly disrupted by the piano and string fills. These examples of clever instrumentation and uplifting melody are Case at her best.

“I’m an Animal” adds some color to the album with an organ in the beginning and a chorus of backup vocals. The song is short, but the combination of the tambourine beat, thumping base, and celestial harmonies make this song one of the album’s most evocative.

Despite the continued surprises, there are times when the album teeters on the verge of redundancy. With the constant nature theme and the simple chord progressions, there are moments when the untiring voice of Case is not enough. In “Fever,” country influences are emphasized with the twang of the guitar in the background, but despite an unanticipated tempo change, the track lacks a strong melody, making her usual form and instrumentation seem stale and tiresome.

The trouble is that when Case does try to change her tune, the songs often become much less appealing. “Prison Girls” is an ominous song with a Latin-rhythmic feel that is a change from the liveliness of the other tracks. Case has a chance to sing in a darker, more minor tone, and the instrumentation lends itself to a more complex mix of sounds and riffs, but the song as a whole drags on and does not seem suitable for the delicacy of Case’s voice.

On “I’m an Animal,” Case declares: “My courage is roaring like the sound of the sun...I am an animal.” Inscribed in these lyrics lies the essence of “Middle Cyclone”; the combination of Case’s passionate voice, poignant melodies, and powerful storytelling reveal the primal essence of the album. Even when she missteps, Case’s album displays an imaginative and skillful artist, emotionally devoted to her craft.

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