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In this week’s issue of The New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones profiles Neko Case in concert with the release of Case’s new album Middle Cyclone. In the article, Frere-Jones makes some stunning remarks–not least of which is “Neko Case is the horn section,” one of the best descriptions of a singer that I’ve ever read. I do agree that Middle Cyclone is Case’s best record; she seems to get exponentially more mature as a songwriter, most notable in the lyrics which have quickly caught up to the quality of her voice. Every record is better than the last, and each one capitalizes on Case’s strengths as a singer and songwriter while minimizing any previous misstep. But I’d have to contend with this point, even if I agree with it on a certain level:

At first, Case’s take on country was engaging, mostly because of her voice…Without Case’s voice, the Boyfriends records would have been fairly unremarkable country-rock albums.

By the Boyfriends records, Frere-Jones means The Virginian and Furnace Room Lullaby, albums she released before singularly owning 2003’s Blacklisted. I don’t really know that this criticism works for Furnace Room Lullaby, which keeps the production that Case calls “some sort of Owen Bradley magic” of The Virginian while branching into the moodier content and sonics that inform Blacklisted (the title track, after all, concerns the narrator cremating her lover).

Part of what makes Frere-Jones’s comment stick out to me is that it is in line with what I had thought of The Virginian–Case’s debut and her least ‘accomplished’ record–when I first heard it, dismissing it as lacking any of the qualities that made Case a unique artist. A few years removed and a healthy dose of Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline and Wanda Jackson has made me respect the charms, however slight they may be, of The Virginian–a modest iteration of the classic Nashville sound that manages to sound aged in moonshine while still full of modernity’s swagger.

And oh yeah, there are tunes.

Not to denigrate Case’s songwriting, but she no longer writes “songs” in the classic verse-chorus-verse tradition. And that’s fine; it works for her to create the prose found in Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (“Star Witness” being her greatest example) as well as the singularly poetic lines she has crafted with increasing frequency since Blacklisted (perhaps my favorite from Middle Cyclone: the title track’s “I lie across the path waiting just for a chance to be a spiderweb trapped in your lashes”). And what makes the songs work is the strength of Case’s writing coupled with the immense power of her voice. In fact, to turn Frere-Jones’s critique on its head, I feel as if Middle Cyclone would seem like your standard unremarkable indie-folk record without Case’s voice (plus, again, her lyrical talent). Imagine also if bearded white boys sang this; the amount of acclaim would be deafening (see: those indie-folk white boy beard records that came out last year which I don’t remember).

In fact, Case’s voice dials waaaaay back on Middle Cyclone than it previously has. It is, actually, much less of a horn section than normal. This disparity has been spotlit in the past three or so weeks as I’ve revisited Case’s catalog, most judiciously listening to the two I’ve heard least: the live record The Tigers Have Spoken as well as The Virginian. It’s not a coincidence that both are consisted of roughly half-originals and half-covers each. What is great about Tigers is how remarkably fun the whole thing sounds; it’s good to hear Case (armed with secret weapon The Sadies) take songs by the Shangri-Las and Loretta Lynn and the Nervous Eaters and make them her own. Case has an almost unparalleled ability to improve upon originals for the simple fact of her voice and her enthusiasm.

She does this tremendously on The Virginian, where it is almost impossible to tell which songs are originals and which ones are covers, except for maybe the betrayal by a slightly off-key lyrical flourish (like including the word “rhetoric” in a chorus, which OUCH). “Timber” takes a simple metaphor and makes it sound as big as the song’s fallen tree; her duet with Carl Newman on “Bowling Green” must have inspired their work in the New Pornographers; “Karoline” is a rip-snortin’ performance worthy of prime Wanda Jackson. These songs are as honky-tonk and grimy as Neko Case will ever be, I fear–it is great to hear this much propulsion and energy coming out of her and her band. But she can also do justice to the heartbreak she’ll explore later in much more poetic terms, while keeping them grounded in the simplicity of “Lonely Old Lies” and “Thanks A Lot.” This latter performance is not as distant or slightly ironic as when Ernest Tubbs, God bless ‘im, sang it, but I’ll take Case’s furious longing when she wails “I’ve got a broken heart, that’s all I got.”

This is the power of Case as a singer; she takes over, and she doesn’t let go. Middle Cyclone is clearly her best record by a longshot, and it benefits from her vocal restraint (making her powerful intonations that much more impressive) while expanding her content in impressive lyrical setpieces and song structures. It is almost impossible to break this record up into songs; they feel like a full, cohesive, linked whole. One song plays and you think it is the best song on the record, until you get to the next one, until you get to “I’m An Animal,” which from then on is the single best run of songs in Case’s recorded career. With this record, Case has vaulted even further into the upper echelon of musical artists of this generation.

But damn, I’m gonna miss the horn section that existed on The Virginian and The Tigers Have Spoken.

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