Whenever alt-country chanteuse Neko Case releases a new record, it's natural to wonder if the next album will measure up to the nearly flawless body of work that preceded it. There are very few musicians out there who've never released a clunker, and for years, Case has been part of that elite group. With every record, she has managed to cover different lyrical and sonic terrain — from the honky-tonk country of debut album The Virginian to the soulful gospel-pop of 2006's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood — with finesse and precision. But with this year's Middle Cyclone, Case seems to have faltered for the very first time in her distinguished career. At its very weakest, Case's music is still a delight, but there's no denying that Middle Cyclone borrows many of the same ideas — and even a few similar melodies — from songs she's written before. Repetitive choruses and monotonous melodies plague the record's weakest tracks. And yet, Case's voice soars above and beyond any of those shortcomings, striking doubters down like the hand of God smiting the wicked.
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