Album Review: Neko Case, Middle Cyclone

First Listen: Neko Case, Middle Cyclone


Neko Case's Middle Cyclone was one of the top 10 reasons I got excited about 2009, so when I saw the album was streaming on NPR's site ahead of its March 3 release, I had to take a listen.

My first impression in a nutshell: This is an album that's going to grow and grow on me. Case has said she wrote a bunch of love songs for the album, but it's important to note that the term probably means something different to her than it does to most people on the planet. Don't expect soft and mushy love: These are songs about disappointment, animal attacks, and tornadoes falling in love with people. By the end, I felt like I'd been through the emotional wringer — but I also couldn't wait to listen again.

There are a couple of missteps, but they're few and far between; early favorites include "Magpie to the Morning" and Case's cover of Harry Nilsson's "Don't Forget Me," but that might change on my next listen. You can check out the album for yourself, and to hear what I heard about each of the 15 tracks, just read more.

  • "This Tornado Loves You" — The album kicks off with sparkly guitars, a toe-tapping beat, and the words "my love, I am the speed of sound." It's a lovely, unfolding story, very dark and yet still hopeful-sounding. A great opener.
  • "Next Time You Say Forever" — This one starts out with a sound reminiscent of a music box. It's just a tiny little song, more like a poem set to music than anything with a traditional song structure.
  • "People Got a Lotta Nerve" — We've heard this one, and I still love its catchiness; I know I'll have it stuck in my head all day. I went to an event with Case in January where she talked about the inspiration for this song being when zoo animals attack people, who then seemed shocked that the animals are still wild. Now it makes me chuckle to myself every time I hear it.
  • "Polar Nettles" — This track takes a dark turn, like the sonic equivalent of stepping into a spooky, creaky old house. There's some very cool guitar work midway through in a quiet part, and then the track picks up speed and becomes ominous.
  • "Vengeance is Sleeping" — Beautiful guitar work kicks off this track, but it's Case's voice that ends up in the forefront. The arrangement is quite simple, which lets the lyrics carry the song; it's surprisingly delicate for a song with such a powerful title.
  • "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth" — This cover of a '70s song seems earnest, if a wee bit goofy, and the backing chorus around the 2-minute mark is a bit much. I'd have put it much later on the album, even as the closing song; it's kind of distracting in this spot.
  • "Middle Cyclone" — The album's title track makes me wish even more that we'd skipped "Mother Earth" for the moment, because it flows perfectly out of the first four songs. The music box turns up again, and it plays a little like a melancholy lullaby. Some gorgeous imagery ("a spiderweb trapped in your lashes").
  • "Fever" — This track brings a funky beat to the album, then switches into a more straightforward rhythm after about a minute. I'm not sure who does the male backing vocals, but it's a great match for Case's voice. I like the way this one builds throughout, adding layers and layers of sound.
  • "Magpie to the Morning" — One of my early favorites. It has a lot of swing to the vocals, and some (relatively) straightforward lyrics provide an immediate hook. I like the way you can barely hear Case say "here I go" before hitting one soaring note about halfway through.
  • "I'm an Animal" — Oddly, this one strikes me as one of the most accessible songs on the album. I could imagine it on TV show during some kind of heated courtship scene. I like the organ at the beginning and the rawness of the vocals.
  • "Prison Girls" — This track, the album's longest so far, has a lot of the spookiness of "Polar Nettles." I'll definitely need more time to decipher all the lyrics, but there's lots of emphasis on shadows and darkness and "gunpowder eyes." I might be crazy, but something about it reminds me of an epic Decemberists song.
  • "Don't Forget Me" — The album's second and final cover is of a Harry Nilsson song, and it seems to fit much better into the natural flow of the album than the earlier cover. Its bittersweet lyrics just sound right in Case's voice.
  • "The Pharaohs" — I'm sorry, I'm still recovering from "Don't Forget Me." But this song seems like as good a follow-up as anything could be, with lyrics that sound on first listen to be about a love affair gone terribly wrong. "You kept me wanting, wanting, wanting like the wanting in the movies."
  • "Red Tide" — This is a rather jazzy direction for the last proper track of the album. I feel emotionally drained — in a good way! — and I know I'm not processing everything that's going on here. I can tell I like the way the guitar really drives home certain lines and the way Case's voice hits certain soaring notes.
  • "Marais la Nuit" — And: crickets. Literally. The album closes with 30 minutes of ambient noises — crickets, and probably other insects too — recorded from Case's farm in Vermont where much of the album was created. This might annoy me if the album were shorter (would it feel like I got screwed out of a real song?) but as track No. 15, I have no complaints. Also, it's oddly compelling. And it'll definitely save me money on relaxation tapes or something. Seriously, I can't stop listening to the crickets.

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