Neko Case: “It will end again in bullets, my friend.”
We were gearing up to write about Neko Case’s new album Middle Cyclone but The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones beat us to it, and did a pretty good job at that. Among the highlights: Case describing her voice as “the horn section of any band I’m in,” as well as Mr. Frere-Jones’s imaginative coupling of Case’s “Margaret vs. Pauline” with the two sisters in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.
We didn’t discover Case until she released Blacklisted in 2002. (That album cover, like all of hers, is both arresting and disturbing. She is similarly prostrate in Furnace Room Lullaby, while Middle Cyclone features her crouched on the hood of a 1968 Mercury Cougar holding a sword. The live album The Tigers Have Spoken does not include her picture but does feature a tiger eating a deer.) The second track on Blacklisted, “Deep Red Bells,” has a dark, gorgeous streak to it and lyrics to match. This live version captures the crowd’s palpable anticipation at 2:47 when she belts out:
Where does this mean world cast its cold eye?
Who’s left to suffer long without you?
Does your soul cast about like an old paper bag?
Past empty lots and early graves of those like you
Who’ve lost their way
Were murdered on the interstate
While the red bells rang like thunder
Only later did we learn the song is about Case’s memories of being a young woman living near Seattle when the Green River Killer was at large. She also cited David Lynch as an inspiration for the album. You should be spotting a trend by now.
Case is also an integral member of the “brains-across-the-dashboard power pop” sound of The New Pornographers. While she doesn’t write any of the songs (those duties fall to A.C. Newman as well as Dan Bejar of Destroyer), she’s the best part of a band with many good ones. Mr. Frere-Jones picks “The Laws Have Changed” off Electric Version as one of Case’s most triumphant efforts. (We defy anyone to listen to that song without engaging in animated head-bobbing and several spirited fist pumps.) Our favorite Case effort for The New Pornographers is “The Bleeding Heart Show,” which you may recognize because it has been used in a commercial for The University of Phoenix (as well as the trailer for Feast of Love):
Where were we? Oh right. Neko Case.
We concur with Mr. Frere-Jones when he says Middle Cyclone is “the best of [Case’s] career by a generous margin.” You should take the first song, “This Tornado Loves You,” at face value: It really is a love song from a tornado’s perspective, with a bit of a fatalistic bent ( “My love, I am the speed of sound / I left them motherless, fatherless / Their souls they hang inside-out from their mouths / But it’s never enough / I want you”). Need more of this cheery sunshine? Try “People Got A Lotta Nerve”:
You know they call them killer whales
But you seem surprised
When it pinned you down to the bottom of the tank
Where you can’t turn around
It took half your leg and both your lungs
And I craved I ate hearts of sharks
We listened to this song three times before those lyrics registered; the song breezes along like a Patsy Cline* number with an infectiously catchy chorus. That’s the way the whole album is. It’s easily Case’s most wide-ranging solo effort thus far (she gets help from, among others, M. Ward, Sarah Harmer, Los Lobos, Calexico and fellow New Pornographers). “Mockingbirds sing, ants march, and the sky drops marbles on Case’s characters,” as Frere-Jones puts it. That might sound like chaos, but Case has a way of making chaos sound beautiful, even elemental.
Cincinnati fans, your best chance of catching her will be at Newport Music Hall in Columbus on April 23. Road trip, anyone?
And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention and link to our favorite Neko Case song, “John Saw That Number.” Camera work is shaky, but the sound is right on. And don’t worry — you don’t hear from the tone deaf audience member again after he sings the first line. Perhaps — hopefully? — he was eaten by a killer whale.
* = The obligatory Patsy Cline comparison. We have yet to read a review of Middle Cyclone which doesn’t make one.