Neko Case has built her career on the strength of her soaring, radiant voice, immediately recognizable and rich with both authority and tenderness. With each successive album, her songs have progressed, as Case has sought more distinguished and inspiring collaborators, carving a new niche not so easily confined under the alt-country banner.
With Middle Cyclone, Case is a more assured songwriter, having buried the struggle with her slightly skewed romantic tendencies, even if the word "love" happens to crop up occasionally.
Like Case's last two studio albums, Middle Cyclone was recorded largely at Tucson's Wavelab Studio, but her latest effort has more musical nuance and intricacies throughout the album's 14 songs. (The closer is a 32-minute track of nighttime frog sounds.)
Guitarist Paul Rigby is listed on nearly every song as a co-arranger, a credit he shared just twice on Case's last album. The rotating cast of guests includes members of the Sadies, New Pornographers, Calexico and Giant Sand.
Highlights include the title track, a poignant and dreamy tune, with Case's vulnerable lyrics accompanied by only a gently strummed guitar and a fleeting music box that lends a soft, lullaby melody; and "I'm an Animal," propelled by thumping toms and a jittery guitar riff that wouldn't be out of place on a New Pornographers record.
Always an enigmatic lyricist, Case is more direct on Middle Cyclone, with a thoughtful and sophisticated approach that stitches together frequent references to tornados and animals to suggest that even amidst nature's tumult is the presence of a compelling and vital comfort.