Friday, March 06, 2009

Neko Case: Middle Cyclone

Go to and spend some time there. Ignore your kids for a while.

Neko Case's voice floats somewhere between indie pop and the fringes of country music. While it sometimes sounds ripped straight from the pages of the Official Singer-Songwriter Handbook, that's not necessarily a bad thing. There's an endearing directness and simplicity in her vocal approach, and if most indie fans are being honest, they would gladly take such traditional accessibility over the overwrought stylings of Sharon Jones or the bordering-on-self-parody mangled garbling of Lucinda Williams any day. Case's voice can be comforting or foreboding, lighthearted or caustic, its smoothness used to accentuate the melodies in her songs.

All of these characteristics are again present on Middle Cyclone, the follow-up to the musician's wildly celebrated Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. It's mostly a solid and steady release, with a few standout tracks that exhibit the confident and self-assured vocals and cryptic lyrics of its predecessor. Still, the final product is somewhat disappointing. Too often the album is far too studied and reserved, with a lack of spontaneity and an excessively clean production that make it both overlong and dully repetitive.

Middle Cyclone's best songs play to Case's strengths as a vocalist and arranger; invariably, these songs favor stripped-down arrangements over the shimmering borderline mainstream pop bombast that plagues other songs. The title track is perhaps the album's finest moment, featuring Case's gorgeous vocals set against a gentle guitar melody played by long-time backing band member Paul Rigby. "The Next Time You Say Forever" augments Case's vocals with two acoustic guitars and an understated cello from Calexico's Joey Burns, and offers sentiments that betray the song's passive and pastoral vibe: "The next times you say 'forever'/ I will punch you in your face." "Magpie To the Morning" rolls along with a countrified rhythm as Case's spoken word vocals transition into one of her more memorable vocal performances, this time supported by M. Ward on guitar and hushed backing vocals from Carolyn Mark, Lucy Wainwright-Roche, and Kelly Hogan.

Yet these aren't enough to compensate for Middle Cyclone's flaws. Too many songs sound forced, overly crafted, and too precious for their own good, with textured studio arrangements offering slickness and sheen where raw emotion and breathing room should be. "This Tornado Loves You," which includes no fewer than 12 participants, is the album's most egregious offender, a swirling miasma of backing vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, strings, drums, and keyboards that sacrifices spontaneity in favor of a saturated, radio-friendly treatment that suggests its players were given little wiggle room for improvisation or going off script. This clinical precision also plagues "The Pharaohs;" not even Garth Hudson on organ is enough to breathe some life into it. Other songs precariously border on sounding like - rip it off fast like a Band-aid - Tuesday night at your local coffeehouse where every singer-songwriter is armed only with a guitar and disconcerting amounts of folkie seriousness. The humor of "People Got a Lotta Nerve" - it's either about caged animals exacting their revenge on their captors, or something far less literal - is deadened both by its AOR leanings (Pieces of You-era Jewel unfortunately comes to mind) and Case's tendency to repeat words until it grates on the listener's nerves: "I'm a man-man-man-man-man-man-eater/ but still you're surprised-prised-prised when I eat you." Two cover songs are included and are curiosity pieces at best, with a saccharine and plodding take of Sparks' "Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth" suggesting it would have been best served as a b-side or free download.

Case's excellent songwriting and her ability to offer glimpses of a song's intentions without making them painfully obvious sometimes offset Middle Cyclone's weaker moments. While her vocal approach is usually straightforward, the lyrics are suggestive and evocative, with phrases and images - whether it's the "gunpowder eyes" of "Prison Girls" or the "diamond at the bottom of the drain" in "Magpie To the Morning" - keeping the listener's attention where the arrangements might cause it to wander. The lyrics mask some flaws but not all of them; Middle Cyclone is simply too meticulous and predictable to maintain any momentum. Its best moments exist when its songs are at their most vulnerable and unadorned. All too often, such subtlety is bypassed in favor of an army of instrumentation that, while expertly performed by a strong supporting cast, offers only technical expertise where warmth and emotion should be.

No comments: