Neko Case could have played it safe. Her lustrous voice and bewitching stage presence made her the unquestioned queen of the twang-rock scene, and she could have carved out a nice little niche singing Loretta Lynn covers, vamping with side projects like The New Pornographers and cashing royalty checks every time the phrase “alt-country chanteuse” appeared in her magazine profiles.
But Case chose a different path, shedding her rustic roots in favor of a more diverse approach that defies all attempts at pigeonholing her musical stylings. In 2006, she wrote and produced Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, a challenging record filled with unconventional song structures informed by such varied influences as gospel standards and Ukrainian folk tales.
She’s back with Middle Cyclone, an album warmer and more inviting than Fox Confessor. The voice is there, of course, but it’s backed by elegant arrangements and rich instrumentation provided by a cast of frequent collaborators—her pals from Calexico, The New Pornographers and The Sadies—along with first-time guests like M. Ward, Garth Hudson and members of Los Lobos.
Case’s own tenor guitar carries much of the melody, buffeted by Paul Rigby’s noirish riffs and spooky chords. She’s added some swagger on the bouncy “Red Tide” and girl-group harmonies on the anthemic “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Nature.” A Byrds-inflected intro sets up her trademark soaring vocals on the album’s first single, “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” but Case’s growth as a songwriter emerges on tender cuts like the ambling “Magpie to the Morning” and the title track, which draws its name from the quiet space at the center of a storm.
References to the power of weather and wild animals abound—the set closes with 31 ambient minutes of crickets and frogs recorded at Case’s Vermont pond—and the theme reaches a crescendo in “This Tornado Loves You,” which explores the notion of a human being courted by a force of nature. That might sound like a reach, but Case has proven she thrives when taking chances, and Middle Cyclone epitomizes that philosophy.