Music

Kitten's Got Claws

The Animal Kingdom of Neko Case

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These days Neko Case doesn't do interviews. There are no questions from stammering fanboy journalists about working with AC Newman, her vivid songwriting flair, or—god forbid—that awkward "Sexiest Babe of Indie Rock" title hoisted upon her by Playboy. Instead, Case has reached that glorious plateau of artistic comfort where the long and winding road she has traveled as a musician—from the bubbly, adorable twee of Cub, to cementing her place as quite possibly the finest singer this side of the Coal Miner's Daughter—lends itself to a career without comprise.

Solo studio recording number five, Middle Cyclone, exhibits Case in full stride, gracefully extending the sullen foundation established in 2006's cripplingly sad Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Giving up the alt-country ghost, Case adopts an idiosyncratic lyrical approach to Middle Cyclone, penning songs that circle around literal (and metaphorical) cyclones and tornados, the animal kingdom, and an expected dose of gloomy regret to top it all off.

The storms of nature and love are nothing new, but when Case sings about nature, it's heartbreakingly sad. Her songs are a parahuman clasping of animals and people interacting on a level plane; one where killer whales are apologetic for following their genetic arc and chomping off a swimmer's legs ("I'm a man man man, man man man eater. But still you're surprised when I eat you") and an isolated tiger is driven to madness on the losing end of a chain (from the title track of 2004's live EP, The Tigers Have Spoken). One of Middle Cyclone's finer moments, is the stern finger-waving cover of glam-pop band Sparks' "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth." Case's take on the song is stunningly gorgeous, a stern environmental scolding in the form of a bubbly Spector girl-group pop number. Plus, if it convinces future generations that there is more to the name Sparks than a fantastic/terrible alcoholic drink, then consider Case's version to be a complete and total success.

Case offers just enough to placate her devoted listeners before she ends Middle Cyclone not with a bang, or even a whimper, but with a chirp. Thousands of them. Over a half-hour of chirping frogs (Spring Peepers, if you are keeping track on your amphibian scorecard at home) closes out the record, gracefully pulling the shades on this offering and proving that to Neko Case, there are more important things in this world than music.

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