By Mark Abraham | 13 March 2009
If Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006) showcased the cerebral, Ukranian mythology-delving, ambitious side of Neko Case’s country music, Middle Cyclone comes off more like a laid-back, upbeat affair. Even the press bites that have been circulating about the album highlight that idea: they romanticize the thing being recorded in a barn in Vermont, and explain quirky tidbits like how Case got eight free pianos off of Craigslist and put them in the barn and how the animals who lived nearby had apparently just watched Cinderella and decided to make noises at fortuitous moments while the album was being recorded. Serendipity, right?
But that’s not exactly a creation-story on par with that of Rumours, and plus why do we care, unless the real fantasy here is going off into the wilderness to make an album. Maybe she recorded Fox Confessor Brings the Flood on a Borg spaceship, given how little buzz that superior album seemed to generate. Because I like this album, but don’t really like like it. I mean, let’s be clear: I’d totally smoke outside the roller derby with “Prison Girls” and compose stanza-less poetry with “The Pharoahs.” I’d absolutely skip class with “Middle Cyclone” to ride the bus, but I’d hope there weren’t enough seats for those background vocalists, because how many Nekos do you need along for the ride? And even though I’m not a huge fan of “I’m an Animal,” I’m an animal for Case’s fascination with the anthropomorphizing of tornadoes and wild life on this album. It’s a fun listen, for the most part.
But I also find it a bit disappointing. The cover even sort of provides a metaphor for how I feel about it: cool idea, but why take the main image and apply badly rendered Photoshop-filtered clip-art resembling shadows under the car? All the press bites I listed above are just a series of anecdotes that function the same way: they distract from the music like those crap-ass shadows are distracting me when looking at the cover. And if a bird magically sang during “Polar Nettles” 39 seconds into the recording of the song, the addition of a real bird’s song doesn’t make the song nearly as resonant or pretty as “Maybe Sparrow” where no avian-support was onhand. Which is not to say Middle Cyclone is bad, but is to say that people are focusing on the anecdotal stuff because talking about what the album sounds like means telling you what you already know, provided you’ve ever heard a Neko Case album before. I.e. It’s yet another Neko Case album that sounds pretty and stark and solemn and country-ish and exactly like Neko Case. It’s incredibly pleasant, even.
That’s where my problem is. The real attraction of a Neko Case album to me has always been the fact that it sounds pleasant until you actually think about what’s going on. These songs kind of remain pleasant in retrospect, which is weird, and the disconnect there is highlighted wonderfully—although to the album’s detriment—by Case’s performance of “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth.” The song sort of sits there like a Harmony and Counterpoint 101 class with a basic melody too rote and unexciting to merit the gorgeous harmonies that unfortunately inherit that roteness and spin out like the most crystalline CGI cyclone you’ve ever scene. The fact she’s interpreting the Sparks—the song was the single from their Propaganda (1974)—is illustrative of a few things that I think about when thinking about Middle Cyclone. If the Sparks were all about showing off their skittishness—like, they wanted to translate neurosis into pop music form—Case has always been the inversion of the exact same wavelength. She’s into sublimating all that mental stuff beneath cool, placid passages of music. It’s the reason why her music is so emotional even though her music never really has much emotion; she’s a trailer park anthropologist routinely delivering her research, and our emotional investment in her music has always been less about her performance than the stories she tells and the weird way she positions herself as narrator in relation to those stories. It’s complicated, I mean, and Middle Cyclone doesn’t provoke the same questions. Why does Neko Case sing about what she sings about? Why is she so detatched? That detachment has always been an asset, I think; in being an narrative observer who prescribes advice to the characters in her songs, she reveals lots about herself.
Middle Cyclone may begin with a song about a tornado destroying human settlements, but it doesn’t play out with any of the conflict that has been a hallmark of Case’s previous work. In fact, I’d reject the idea that this album is laid-back in favor of saying it’s too light-hearted; Middle Cyclone happens in the middle of the cyclone, in the eye of the storm where Case seems to have stopped rotating, at ease with her music. Which…well, just listen to “Fever” and try to tell me it isn’t Neko Case trying really hard to sound like Neko Case. Listen to “Magpie to the Morning” and fall asleep. Listen to her weird Labelle backup vocals echoing the word “airport” after she says “heaven will smell like an airport” on “I’m an Animal” and giggle along with me. Because, huh? Airport!
Beyond that, there isn’t much to say. Pleasant and pretty is wonderful when it’s consistent, and this is a Neko Case album you can put on and listen to. But I find it hard to imagine anybody reacting to these songs like they reacted to those on Blacklisted (2002) or Fox Confesser Brings the Flood. Between the awkward faux-gospel backup vocals and the weird sense that Case is trying to hold your hand as she walks you through her newest dark stories, Middle Cyclone is like an Afterschool Special version of a Neko Case album. With a thirty-minute field recording of frogs attached to the end.