Neko Case has never been one to pull punches. Her unique, almost brash voice doesn't really lend itself to timidity, and her songwriting tends to follow suit. Even when her palette is tinted with the darker recesses of her psyche and brushed with the softer side of her expressive voice, it's done in a way that makes it clear that Case — while willing to reveal her weaknesses and sorrows — is not simply a maven of melancholia, but a force with which to fight it. Middle Cyclone, her fourth solo album, is no exception. "This Tornado Loves You" opens with propulsive drums, like the inexorable momentum of a rail car speeding through dusty former boomtowns, carrying Case either toward or away from an indecisive lover. Although Cyclone contains considerably more pop sheen and up-tempo tendencies than Case's previous efforts, she made a name for herself pairing her haunting voice with haunting tunes, and there are plenty of noirish moments. "Polar Nettles" is particularly arresting, with its martial drumming, cryptically disturbing lyrics and low-slung string and MIDI-sax accompaniment. Case has already proven her pop worthiness collaborating with Carl Newman and friends in New Pornographers, and claimed her throne as alt-country's dark queen through her solo work. On Cyclone, she combines her two domains, and the resulting terrain is an astonishing blend of dust and verdancy, painted alternately in monochrome and Technicolor.
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