Like Joan Armatrading, Neko Case's huge, generous voice is often the only thing keeping us listening. Like Lyndon Johnson, Case's material shows how an incomplete education (or an indifference to one) results in peculiar turns of phrase and points of emphasis (coming up with a line like"You know they call them killer whales" and delivering it just so, for example). Like both, she has enviable audience empathy. Often obscure, she's never precious. I respect her, and her huge, generous voice blasts lived-in subtexts into the New Pornographer librettos she's hired to intone. Unfortunately, her songwriting and taste in arrangements flatter the NPR and Rolling Stone crowd from whom she gets most of her acclaim and sales; she lacks Armatrading's directness and Johnson's vulgarity.
Starting with a song in which she compares herself to a tornado and whose best cut boasts the line "I'm a man-man-man, man-man-maneater/But still you're surprised prised prised when I eat ya," Middle Cyclone gets by on personality, like a lot of good country. But great country consists of more than just personality, and requires a shrewder ear than one that finds transcendence in Sparks and Harry Nilsson covers, both of which she understands more than absorbs. At times, on tracks like "Fever" and the interminable "Prison Girls," the echoey production enforces a distance between meaning and emotion that Case's voice can't bridge. Middle Cyclone is the kind of album that will reward attention when revisited during the summer doldrums, but is also the sort of achievement I'm ashamed to trumpet, not when her claque can blow a lot harder than me. I can't say she deserves better when Middle Cyclone is exactly the kind of album she wanted to make.