Back in September 2000 at the stuffy and smoky Night and Day café in Manchester, Neko Case was apologizing for being full of a cold. She then proceeded to belt out a fortyfive minute set of astonishing power. Her voice was a vehicle of anguish and heartbreak that paradoxically made everybody’s spirits rise. I don’t think I’d ever witnessed a vocal performance with that much physical and emotional power. I still haven’t. The times I’ve seen her since have never quite been the same, albeit excellent shows in their own right. Similarly, she’s never quite captured the incredible emotional experience of her second record Furnace Room Lullaby on subsequent outings.
The raw country sound has gradually become smoothed over as she’s moved into more mainstream rock-pop areas. The voice, too, has been somewhat tamed. The production of Middle Cyclone is immaculate, but too often just too damned tasteful. There are too many alt-pop plodders, and technical perfection is given precedence over raw passion. Sometimes the pop approach works. “People Got a Lotta Nerve” has a pleasingly Byrdsian jangle, and a big chorus. The cover of Sparks’ hit “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” just doesn’t work, though.
There are a few songs that pierce the general air of slight disappointment. Opener “This Tornado Loves You” sees the old Neko in full voice, accompanied by a swaggering bluegrass backing. “The Pharaohs” is wonderful, with the same sense of nostalgic heartbreak that colours old songs like “South Tacoma Way”. “Prison Girls” is dark, with a spaghetti western type twang to it. Generally the album starts and ends well, but sags in the middle. The ending “Marais la nuit” is a half hour field recording of pond life and crickets that won’t give Chris Watson any sleepless nights.
I’m still captivated by the voice. Neko could sing her grocery list and make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Middle Cyclone uses a lot of imagery and metaphor from the animal kingdom. And yet the music is too often tamed and domesticated. I want to hear that voice running wild and free again.
1 This Tornado Loves You 3:21
2 The Next Time You Say Forever 1:46
3 People Got a Lotta Nerve 2:34
4 Polar Nettles 2:26
5 Vengeance Is Sleeping 3:23
6 Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth 2:14
7 Middle Cyclone 3:06
8 Fever 3:19
9 Magpie to the Morning 2:44
10 I’m an Animal 2:21
11 Prison Girls 5:26
12 Don’t Forget Me 3:10
13 The Pharaohs 3:38
14 Red Tide 2:53
15 Marais la nuit 31:39