Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone’s Great, And For The Right Reasons

Sasha Frere-Jones is a pretty great rock critic, but he’s not infallible (cf. his championing Animal Collective.)  And while he gives Neko Case her due, and offers Middle Cyclone the right centrifugal spin in his New Yorker send off, it’s possible he loves her for all the wrong reasons.  He seems to take some pleasure in describing Middle Cyclone as Step Two in Neko’s post-Country incarnation, while also damning with faint praise such an exemplar of that supposed past period as Blacklisted. Well, now.

What was so great about Blacklisted, why it was such a revelation, was not just because it proved that Neko missed her calling as a comic novelist.  It was the way Neko and those high desert desperadoes, the fellas in Calexico and Giant Sand, were as well put together as a rattle and a snake.  Seven years later, they’re still playing music that is damn near uncategorizable, but sure sounds to me to pay equal debts to Loretta Lynn and Steven Foster, timeless Americana that pays a symmetrical homage to the drainage from the Mississippi and the Colorado.

Frere-Jones points to The Tigers Have Spoken as some break point between early and late Neko.  But that was a live album, with a combo — the Sadies — whose sound is a magpie’s jukebox, one minute channeling the house band from “Hee Haw,” the next mimicking “Foggy Notion”-era Velvet Underground.   Her foray on that tour no more or less represented a break from Blacklisted as would her next sojourn with the New Pornographers.  Fermented apples and mescaline, they both give a kick but there’s no comparison.  Besides, the marvelous Middle Cyclone, starring those same dusty hombres from Calexico and Giant Sand, is completely of a piece — if, I will grant, slightly less twangy –with Blacklisted.

Neko’s never been a strict adherent to rules of melody, which is weird given how gloriously her tomgirl pipes can levitate the church roof.  There is something dark and mysterious to her solo work — sort of like Calexico, and um, Giant Sand.  But this album soars with gothic heartache and angelic beauty, like Flannery O’Connor playing the cello on a warm spring Sunday.

Middle Cyclone’s great, deep, breathtakingly strange.  (Neko’s evocation of “Prison Girls” is as affecting, and odd, as her line on Blacklisted, “We’ve got a lady pilot who’s not afraid to die.”)  But if Sasha thinks it represents a break from the Neko of seven years ago — even though he means it as compliment — he just hasn’t been listening.

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