Neko Case stays dangerous
by Molly Templeton
Neko Case’s new album is full of warnings. There’s always been an ominous, dangerous thread running through her records, whether it’s the looming birds of “Things That Scare Me,” from Blacklisted, or Fox Confessor Brings the Flood’s “Dirty Knife.” But on Middle Cyclone, the feeling of uncertain anticipation is more overt, the promises clearer. On the album’s shortest song, the precise “The Next Time You Say Forever,” Case follows up the title phrase with “I will punch you in your face.” The song feels wistful and defensive, beginning with what sounds like a glitching musicbox and winding up without anything like a chorus; it spins out like it couldn’t have happened any other way. The album’s first single, “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” has a deceptively sweet-sounding verse that leads into a repetitive chorus in which Case sings in the voice of a furious animal: “I’m a man eater / and still you’re surprised when I eat you.”
It’s not quite straightforward, but it’s less obtuse than some of Case’s more unforgettable lyrics. And Middle Cyclone offers a few more songs that seem a bit clearer, a bit more literal, than Case has been in the past. Still, it doesn’t seem safe to assume that her cover of Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” is just what it looks like on the surface — a song that pairs with “People” in defense of nature. Case has been subtle too long; here and there you’ll find a song that rings out like a pronouncement, like Fox Confessor’s unforgettable, too-brief “That Teenage Feeling,” but more often than not there’s a lingering sense that Case is trying on characters, narrating dreams, skipping the ordinary stuff of life in favor of something grander, something mythic and timeless.
Middle Cyclone is a touch front-loaded; as the album trails to its cricketty end, the songs get less arresting — relatively speaking. It’s still a Neko Case record, and her voice is still the star, though her bandmembers deserve a story of their own (particularly guitarist Paul Rigby, who arranged most of the songs with Case). A Harry Nilsson cover feels like it’s too easy for Case, especially coming as it does before “The Pharaohs,” in which Case complains, “I want the pharaohs, but there’s only men,” in an irresistibly plaintive voice. When she’s not conjuring visions of spiderwebs and tornadoes, she’s needing something impossible, and the spell her eerie lullabies weave makes you want to find it for her. The odd thing is, for all the yearning that slips into Cyclone, the journey from the restless “Tornado” to the last lines of “Red Tide” — “I want to go back and die at the drive in / die before strangers can say / ‘I hate the rain’” — feels complete, a trek taken by someone who wants for nothing. If the record is missing something, it’s the newness of Fox Confessor, which made songs out of wisps and slivers; Middle Cyclone feels whole, hard to peg, slipping out of alt-country clothes and into something sleeker. It’ll still leave you wondering what transformation Case will complete next.
Neko Case, Jason Lytle, 8 pm Sunday, June 7, McDonald Theatre. $25 adv., $28 door.