Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Middle Cyclone: Review


My friends and loved ones really like to rip on me about my taste in music. Jeff (whose favourite bands include Coldplay) likes to joke that I have the taste of your average Art House Lesbian. After all these years his prodding still gets me. I get my back up, reeling off the reasons why Rachael Yamagata is fantastic, or why Annie Lennox is a legend or why Neko Case is one in the making. My friend Nick got in a real good one just the other day. While listening to music, my iPod inevitably shuffles to any number of "girly" artists. In his hilarious accidentally-funny way he proclaimed: "Your iPod would make anyone get their period three days sooner." Now, while I resent the sentiment, I appreciate a zinger like nobody's business.

Neko Case releases her much-anticipated follow-up to the bananas-amazing Fox Confessor Brings the Flood on Tuesday and all I can say is: Jesus Christ. A perfect next-step, this album has a similar feel to Confessor, though stands on its own entirely. Case is an exacting musician, her phrasing and diction clean and organized, her tone effortlessly pitch-perfect. Listening on headphones (you must!) you hear every breath and each pause, utter control over every aspect of the record. That said, there's nothing robotic about her. It's simply pure talent and musicianship. And she surrounds herself with the same; guests on the record include M. Ward, Garth Hudson, Sarah Harmer, members of The New Pornographers, Los Lobos, and Calexico.

"This Tornado Loves You" gets the album started in a frantic and mildly-manic state, a runaway song convincing a man she loves him. "I miss the way you sigh yourself to sleep." With a jittering guitar under the whole thing, it races along and gets your feet stomping.

"The Next Time You Say Forever" is just shy of two minutes long. She has a way of writing chorus-less songs that just drive, leaving you wanting so much more. When each set of sounds happens just once, you pine for more. We're so used to a great harmony coming around two and three times, but Neko insists you just listen to the album on repeat if you want that. "I've been away for so long, I've lost my taste for home. And that's a dirty fallow feeling to be the dangling ceiling from when the roof came crashing down." And a wordplay mastermind to boot. Throughout her entire catalogue she dangles great runs or melodies, but sparingly. 1:16 into "Vengeance is Sleeping", a swell of harmonies never heard again makes you want it all the more.

"Polar Nettles" is a great example of something else Neko is skilled at. Sometimes the character she sings about doesn't particularly interest, the story, the setting, something doesn't grab you, but then a little detail in the music does: 1:23-in, a rattling snare drum makes this song. The first time I heard it, it caught me off-guard and I could feel my eyes widen, my smile too. My stomach dropped a little and I scanned back to hear that again. Fantastic. Those dangling moments, so unexpected.

"Did someone make a fool of me, for I can show 'em how it's done." At her best on tracks like this one ("Middle Cyclone") she sings three verses about something other than an old-timey murder, in this case, it seems, her own inability to get close to others, singing "I can't give up acting tough, it's all that I'm made of. Can't scrape together quite enough to ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love." All to a quiet guitar and the twinkling of a little girl's ballerina musicbox. Economical songwriting like this is so rare, so perfectly restrained.

Mp3 Download: "Vengeance is Sleeping"

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