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CD REVIEW

Neko Case rides the 'Cyclone'

By James Reed
Globe Staff / March 2, 2009
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Let's talk about that album cover. On the front of "Middle Cyclone," Neko Case is in full-on battle stance. Squatting on the hood of an old Mercury Cougar and gripping a long sword, the singer-songwriter looks like a cross between a flame-haired chanteuse and a medieval warrior staring down an invading army. Bring it on. She's ready.

It's a jarring image, but when you hear her new songs, the artwork comes into focus. Case is indeed ready for battle on the new album - to reclaim dormant childhood memories and face her need to be loved.

"Middle Cyclone," which is out tomorrow, is by far Case's most quixotic album, and that's saying a lot considering the abstract ideas behind her last studio album, 2006's "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood." Yet it's also the most revealing and rewarding work in a 12-year recording career that has seen Case evolve from an alt-country siren to a singular songwriter as capricious as a weather vane.

Case has always sounded tough, carrying the sweep of the wide-open prairies in that big voice of hers, but she's also hinted at the loneliness bubbling beneath her confident exterior. On "Middle Cyclone," she's finally articulating that precarious balance, suggesting that to overcome her issues she has to confront them head on.

This time she's also drawn to forces she can't control. On the opening "This Tornado Loves You," whose ricocheting guitar lines vaguely recall U2, she embodies the qualities of a twister that clears everything in its path. "This tornado loves you," she repeats until she finally demands: "What will make you believe me?"

It's hard to remember the last time Case was so emotionally naked in her lyrics. "Just because you don't believe it/ Doesn't mean I didn't mean it," she sings with wistful regret on "The Next Time You Say 'Forever.' "

She zooms in on the environment on a cover of Sparks's "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth," a befuddling tune made even more so by a chorus of Brill Building harmonies. The other cover, of Harry Nilsson's "Don't Forget Me," is a stately homage to the original, but it's a distracting detour on an album that otherwise feels deeply personal.

Her voice is especially tender on the Nilsson cover as she explores the subtlety of her range. Likewise, the acoustic folk lament "Vengeance Is Sleeping" and the stark evocations of "The Pharoahs" let Case dial down her vocals, a quality she's not especially known for.

And yet for all the engaging surprises - orchestral strings on several songs, the brooding minor chords of "Prison Girls," the 32 minutes of nature sounds on the closing "Marais la Nuit" - some of Case's songwriting remains defiantly impenetrable. With lyrics in hand, you could spend all day trying to decipher the meaning of "Polar Nettles" - "She is the centrifuge that throws the spires from the sun/ The Sistine Chapel painted with a gatling gun" - and end up with multiple conclusions (and maybe a migraine).

Perhaps that's the allure of Neko Case. Even in the midst of a fight, she's looking inward. And this time she's letting her battle scars show.

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.

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