Neko Case isn't the same artist she was 10 years ago. That big, booming voice is still there, but her music has become much more understated than it was on her twangy 1997 debut, "The Virginian," and its feisty follow-up, "Furnace Room Lullaby."
Case has explored a more demonstrative side of pop with The New Pornographers and blustering punk in the short-lived Maow, but the music of her solo career has grown increasingly restrained, and the nuances of her previous work becoming all but absent.
The lower-key stylings were charming enough on "Blacklisted" but it has grown more predictable on "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood" and her latest, "Middle Cyclone" (Anti-).
Even the concept behind "Cyclone" is a bit dubious: many of these songs are nature stories, which makes Case seem even more detached. On the opening track, "This Tornado Loves You", Case imagines a storm chasing after a human, recounting the destruction left in its wake in pursuit of its beloved. She may capture her vision of the twister's emotions, but only up to a point: She never channels the rage of a tornado's pointed attack, and her entrancing chant of the song's title evokes more of a summer breeze than the furious winds of a devastating storm.
Equally obtuse is "Magpie to the Morning." Case drops several lyrical hints that this song is a parable for something bigger than her lilting voice would initially imply (especially her soaring line, "He laughed under his breath because you thought that you could outrun sorrow"). But more often, she's reminiscing about birds (whippoorwills, mockingbirds, magpies), leaving a song that's pretty enough but doesn't have enough depth to stick. She sounds almost in a daze on the dreamy "Vengeance Is Sleeping," with its soft, hypnotically picked guitar and piano accents, while her chants of "someday soon, someday soon" on "Polar Nettles" are haunting, but the song is over much too quickly to leave lasting emotions.
Case does have a few moments that move beyond just sounding pretty: backup singers add a punch to her take on the Sparks cover "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth," while her "Prison Girls" has an intriguing Southwestern flair (not terribly surprising, since Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino musicianship is all over "Cyclone"). More creative is the multi-piano take on Harry Nilsson's "Don't Forget Me"; Case's army of ivories captures the song's angsty isolation.
Historically, Case's material has worked best when her lyrics are direct. Part of what made "Furnace Room Lullaby" so compelling was the instant relatability of her songs, whose vibrant emotions matched the brassy timbre of her voice — whether she was singing about heartbreak ("Set Out Running") or gentrification ("Thrice All American"). It's not just about belting or loudness, either — "Deep Red Bells" from "Blacklisted" carries the kind of chilling expressiveness that works especially well for her.
This is a woman who's never been afraid of putting herself out there (just google "Neko Case NSFW"), but she plays it a little too safe on "Middle Cyclone," and the result — while pretty — doesn't have the emotional depth of her previous work.
Written by Express contributor Catherine Lewis
.: Originally published: ExpressNightOut.com: 3 March 2009.