**I know, I know, I am weeks late with this. But I did write it two weeks ago, really, I did. I am sorry. I was busy.**
Neko Case is back with her first studio album in three years. It is probably a good thing that she waited so long, because that is about how long it took for me to be able to say I get Fox Confessor. But now, after tours alone and with new Pornographer, an Austin City Limits broadcast (and CD), a move to a 100 acre farm in rural Vermont, and a Craigslist shopping spree, we are presented with Middle Cyclone. Yes, this album is currently for sale at Starbucks and some songs do feature choruses and there are loves songs, but rest assured, judging by my recent experience, most people still have no idea who she is and will think you are on the cutting edge for listening to this.
Sonically, the contrast with Fox Confessor is something of a give and take. This is not the extended harmonic vocabulary of the last album: the chord changes, while not necessarily predictable, are still part of the accepted canon. Certain elements (tremolo chords on “Vengeance is Sleeping”, occasional pitch bends, and a string of chords in open voicing and parallel motion over a tonic pedal in “Prison Girls” for instance) are used to great effect in maintaining the listeners’ interest. More than anything else, however, this is a coloristic record. In addition to her standard band and strings, “Fever” features a vintage delay pedal almost giving the guitar a detuned sound. The title track, with its music box obligato is the most stripped down cut on this album, and the intimacy is striking. Perhaps the most significant issue of instrumentation is the piano orchestra (obtained free of charge through Craigslist and crammed into the barn on Neko’s Vermont farm) appearing on three tracks.
Lyrics, however, were probably the most characteristic element of Neko’s last album. Her tendency to eschew the standard verse/chorus love song format in favor of a fairly tale infused narrative style set Fox Confessor apart from its contemporaries. Here, with “This Tornado Loves You”, we have an actual love song, albeit a surrealist one about a tornado (an actual tornado, this is not a metaphor) in love with a woman, singing (rather gruesomely) “Carved your name across three counties / ground it in with bloody hides / Their broken necks will line the ditch / ’til you stop it / stop this madness. / I want you”. “People Got a Lotta Nerve”, thrust upon the world on penalty of charitable donation weeks before the March 3 album release date, also breaks the Neko mold with an actual chorus (if a weak one) of “I’m a man eater / but you’re surprised when I eat ya”. These do not always fall flat, however. “Prison Girls” and its refrain: “I love your long shadows / and your gunpowder eyes” continues to haunt me, weeks after first hearing it. Perhaps the most stunning imagery comes from “Polar nettles”: “She is the centrifuge that throws / the spires from the sun / the Sistine Chapel / painted with a Gattling gun”. (“Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” includes the weakest rhyme I have ever heard [unfaithful/faithful-seriously?] but this is a cover, so I will not hold Neko responsible.)
Development-forward progress-is the mark of a mature artist (the satisfied never improve). With Fox Confessor, Neko Case claimed to be “just now figuring out what [her] style is.” Middle Cyclone, I would say, is proof that she had indeed found it. The two are distinctly different works (the current record occasionally blurring the line between Neko’s past projects and her work with the New Pornographers, including appearances by her fellow Pornographers as well as M Ward), but there is a definite sense running throughout that it is the same driving force behind the two (and it is not just that voice, magnificent as ever). I would rather not wait another three years for the next record, but if it is as good as this one, I will bide my time and hope Belle & Sebastian get off their butts and do something to tide me over.
*N.B. If you are a super nerd like I am, you will listen to the final track, “Marais La Nuit”, in its entirety (all 30 minutes of it), in search of polyrhythms.*
Some videos of Neko discussing Middle Cyclone: from ANTI- Records, QTV, and a QTV acoustic performance of “People Got a Lotta Nerve”