Neko Case, “Middle Cyclone” (Anti-) [4 STARS]

SHARE Neko Case, “Middle Cyclone” (Anti-) [4 STARS]

Newly ensconced on a 100-acre farm in rural Vermont, former Chicago (and Washington state, Vancouver and Tucson) resident Neko Case is fascinated by the world around her throughout her sixth solo album. Tornadoes roar by, the 38-year-old singer and songwriter tells us she identifies with killer whales, magpies and numerous other animals and she warns us in a cover borrowed from the cult pop duo Sparks, “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth.” But this is no National Geographical special. With her gorgeous, brassy voice and oversized personality, Case herself is a force of nature, and though the songs may be rich in metaphors, “Middle Cyclone” actually finds her writing more directly about love than ever before.

“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,” Case confesses in the title track, a quiet, minimalist showcase for her crystalline voice. But don’t make the mistake of thinking she’s an easy mark for Cupid or any other man. “The next time you say forever, I will punch you in the face,” she warns in the very next tune.

As Billboard recently noted, Case is in the enviable position of straddling two devoted cult followings: the alternative-country/Americana fan base she’s built up over six solo albums (her last, “Fox Confessor Bring the Flood,” sold 194,000 copies in the U.S. in 2006) and the indie-/college-rockers she’s wooed as the secret weapon in the pop supergroup the New Pornographers. Working with her core band–including guitarist Paul Rigby, bassist Tom Ray, pedal steel player Jon Rauhouse and her indispensable harmony vocal partner Kelly Hogan–Case easily segues from country rock to retro-pop, and from piano balladry to a delicious Harry Nilsson cover (“Don’t Forget Me”). It isn’t that she’s trying to offer something for everyone; more like she just can’t be contained–just like the natural world that inspires her.

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