Three years after the excellent Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, alt-country siren Neko Case returns this month with the eco-friendly Middle Cyclone. Combining Case’s famously rich voice with Captain Planet sloganeering, the record occasionally gets a little too preachy (Lead single “People Got a Lotta Nerve” chides people who act surprised when carnivores like killer whales attack) and little too hookless. But even a decent Case album is worth a couple of spins, if only to hear to those pipes. Granted, there’s something hypocritical about releasing a pointed album about saving the environment and NOT printing it with recycled materials, but at least Case is trying to start a dialogue.
Middle Cyclone opens with arguably its strongest track, “This Tornado Loves You.” Featuring contributions from fellow New Pornographers member AC Newman, the cut blasts through banjo and drums on its quest for the ultimate hook. You’d think it would be the chorus (“My love I am the speed of sound”), but the outro, with its insistent repetition of the title, proves the mightier moment. Nothing quite hits the same after that, although cuts like “People Got a Lotta Nerve” and “I’m an Animal” come close.
But for all its charms, the record occasionally comes off as too forceful and self-indulgent. The album nearly doubles its length with the 31-minute conclusion, “Marais La Nuit.” It’s a recording of birds chirping. It makes Middle Cyclone a double album: half songs and half nature sounds. I dare anyone to listen to the track in its entirety; even if you do, I doubt you’ll be willing to play it more than one. I get that it’s supposed to complete the album’s nature imagery with literal nature sounds, but it’s super boring. Like the previously mentioned “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” a cover of “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Nature” is too cheesy. Same goes “Prison Girls,” which I can only assume is a love song for a raccoon with lines like “I love your long shadows / and your gun powder eyes.”
While there aren’t any clear duds, a lot of the record is easy to listen to but hard to recall, aside from “This Tornado Loves You” and the pounding “I’m an Animal.” On the latter, Case states her, uh, case: We’re all of the same Earth and we’re the same organism (at least in terms of kingdom). Middle Cyclone is definitely a good country album for people who don’t like country. It isn’t too twangy. It doesn’t obsess over drinking or pick-up trucks or adulteress women. But it’s also not that fun either.