Neko Case - "People Got a Lotta Nerve" (Middle Cyclone)
Neko Case has journeyed some distance since her first solo work a dozen years ago, growing from a tenderly tough alt-country songstress into the visionary and poetic pop auteur of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Middle Cyclone picks up the trail blazed by that previous album, taking it down darker roads and into deeper thickets, keeping the baroque dream-pop imagination while moving away from the succinct songcraft of earlier efforts.
The songs here have engaging, melodic hooks to spare. But they are often strung together in tumbling sequences that push against the limits of expected form. It’s an approach that makes sense, though, as Case’s lyrics this time out are at once more descriptive and dense with imagery and more disconnected in narrative flow than they’ve been before. That said, there is often a cinematic gestalt to the way words and sounds work together to create mood and vivid atmosphere. (“Prison Girls,” for instance, with its spy guitar and minor-key tropes, is a noir movie in and of itself.)
All of this is well-served by the carefully-wrought, textured arrangements and production, not to mention the contributions of the backing musicians: the layered chime of Paul Rigby’s guitars; Barry Mirochnick’s spacious and orchestral drumming; Joey Burns’ dark and plaintive cello and bass bowings, to name just a few of many crucial tints and shades. The compelling backup vocals from Case, Rachel Flotard and Kelly Hogan add resonant internal echoes to the main story and melody lines, combining madrigal elegance and Shangri-Las cool.
Above it all, of course, is Case’s voice. She’s singing more intimately and with more dynamic range and emotional transparency than ever before. This can be heard to great effect on “Magpie to the Morning,” where she takes on an innocent-yet-knowing persona to spin a dark fairy tale that’s clothed in a melody and arrangement dreamily reminiscent of 1960s Nancy Sinatra’s collaborations with Lee Hazlewood. And the intimate and disarming way Case delivers her lines on “Middle Cyclone” – “Can’t give up acting tough / It’s all that I’m made of” – might hit the listener like Dylan’s corkscrew to the heart. Even when the musical mood threatens to lighten and lift a bit – as on the jangly, but ferocious “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” or vintage power pop covers of Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” and Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” – this remains a record that conveys the shadows of dark deeds and desperate loves, that chronicles heartbreak, loneliness and vengeful acts of roadside violence.