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February 24, 2009
Rating: 7/10

It's really is hard to say whether it was the slow-burn success of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (an album that's all too easy to under appreciate) or the wicked-rad cover art she leaked back in December; whatever the reason, Neko Case's latest album, Middle Cyclone, is certainly one of the more hotly anticipated releases for the early going in 2009. The New York Times was all over it earlier this month, and the venerable NPR program "All Songs Considered" previewed the album yesterday.

Such heavy interest is the kind of scrutiny that can make (see Animal Collective's recent homerun) or break (see the next Fleet Foxes record) a release, and listening to Middle Cyclone it's hard to say just how the album will be received when all is said and done. There's certainly plenty to like, but from where I'm sitting, it appears that Ms. Case is in a bit of a holding pattern. The songs themselves, for the most part, could be outtakes from Fox Confessor, with only subtle changes to indicate that Case is growing as an artist. If you're Norah Jones, this isn't a problem; when you're a careerist, artistic merits are only secondary. But for someone championed by so many as so much more than cash register ringing Grammy fodder, Case's newest record seems like the work of a performer, worried about pushing her own boundaries, at risk of endangering her rapidly expanding audience.

Which is not to say that Middle Cyclone isn't pleasant. More to the point would be to say that for every song that experiments with new and more interesting textures and structures ("Polar Nettles" comes to mind), there are half a dozen songs that simply keep in the tradition of "big-voiced-singer-songwriter." "People Got a Lot of Nerve" is Middle Cyclone's first single and within it you can hear all the sparkle and swagger of "Hold On Hold On," or any one of the mid-tempo highlights from the last record. Which is fine, but on a blind taste test none of us could ever know that the track wasn't an outtake from a previous effort.

I've sort of obtusely arrived at the second troubling thing about Middle Cyclone: it makes me think that Case might be considering the notion that having a big voice is enough to carry her as an artist. Her songs all seem to be surrounded in relatively rote, understated instrumentation that, when really given a critical once-over, seem designed exclusively to prop up her vocals. And don't get me wrong: they're delivered from wonderful pipes, rich and distinct and full bodied.

But examining her solo catalog in hindsight, it no longer seems coincidental that the times most of us began truly appreciating her distinctive talents were not with the highlights of Blacklisted, the first Neko Case album sans Her Boyfriends, but instead with her first vocals on the initial New Pornographers record. As Case burst into "Mass Romantic," it was so apparent precisely why she was special. While she is no less pleasant on, say, the catchy environmental ditty "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth," Case doesn't sound as special. Complicating any even-handed assessment of Case is the fact that, until Fox Confessor, it wasn't so obvious that she hadn't truly been rising to the high-water marks that primary Pornographers songwriter Carl Newman was setting for her. Case's laconic approach to songwriting can seem half-hearted on Middle Cyclone, but it is also what makes her the perfect foil for Newman, who has to write stronger songs out of necessity, because of his limitations as a vocalist.



Such is the problem with talent, when it begins to appear less like genius. When we think so highly of Neko Case, especially in light of the progress shown on Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, we come to expect her to always be coming further into her own, constantly growing by leaps and bounds. And when she doesn't, it can seem like she's on a careerist bent. Surely we're now expecting too much, but after hearing her voice placed in more imaginative settings like "Failsafe," from the New Pornographers' 2007 album Challengers, or hearing Carl Newman effortlessly out-Neko Neko with songs like "Go Places," might we also consider that the ease of that big voice of Case's could be a hindrance to her development as a songwriter? After all, aside from the visual downer of not seeing her beautiful mane of red hair, the New Pornographers didn't miss a beat on their last live go-around when replacing Case with a touring vocalist. The group could certainly never replace Newman on the road.

Unfortunately a great voice isn't a enough to carry lackluster songs. There is no doubt that both established and new fans alike will find plenty to love here, but there is no denying that songs like "I'm An Animal," with it's bold rock drums and Supertramp-style chord changes, and "Please Don't Forget Me," a gorgeous piano ballad that manages to sound fresh, are the exceptions of this record rather than the rule. Middle Cyclone is pleasant, but Case is too far into her career to table an album this lacking in ambition. It's not a Liz Phair-sized let down, but the duration of Middle Cyclone's gestation period suggested it would be special, the work of an artist striding forward and fully realizing her talents. Instead it's just a timid step, though thankfully still in the right direction.

SEE ALSO: www.nekocase.com
SEE ALSO: www.anti.com

--
Cory Tendering
No biographical information is currently available.

See other articles by Cory Tendering.

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