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Blacklisted

It’s about time I finally talked about my first Neko Case album: Blacklisted! This was also Neko’s first full-length solo album. Of course, she’d been recording albums before that (with Her Boyfriends) and a was a part of a couple of other bands even before that (Cub and Maow). But Blacklisted was her first album credited just to herself.

I guess there’s a rumor that the album’s title came from the fact that she was banned for life from performing at the Grand Ole Opry after she took her shirt off on stage during a performance. It wasn’t an act of rebellion though – she was suffering from heatstroke. But what a story, huh?

Neko_Case_-_Blacklisted

Blacklisted was the album that sparked my love for Neko Case. You could even say it came from the moment I heard the opening track “Things That Scare Me.” I knew I was in for the long haul with this one. I’ve seen this album described as “country noir” and I think that aesthetic comes across most clearly on this track. I picture dusty desert ghost town, empty roads, and desperadoes. It’s easily my favorite track off this album.

I was still in love when I heard the next track “Deep Red Bells,” which was written about the Green River Murders. Neko was a teenager at the time the murders took place, and I remember reading somewhere that she used to take a knife to school to protect herself. Many of the victims were allegedly prostitutes, but that didn’t make a difference to a young Neko. It didn’t make a difference to a grown up Neko either. This song humanizes these women and wonders who they were and who they left behind.

The love doesn’t stop with “Outro With Bees.” This song is so weary and lazy and plaintive. It’s like a heartbreak on a hot summer day. My only complaint is that it’s too short! I couldn’t tell you how she could have made it longer though. Much like the relationship described in this song, it’s supposed to be fleeting.

“Lady Pilot” immediately conjures up images of Amelia Earhart for me: “We’ve got a lady pilot/She’s not afraid to die.” The imagery described in the song is great too: “Boulder City looks like coals in the fire.” It’s a fantastic ode to lady pilots everywhere. (By the way, I LOVE the guitar in this song.)

“Tightly”…oh, dear. “Tightly.” This is my least favorite song on this album – and my least favorite Neko Case song! It’s unfortunate. I just usually skip it. I don’t know, it’s just so plain-sounding and not very impressive. Who knows though? I say that now and then maybe one day I’ll have a change of heart.

“Look for Me (I’ll Be Around)” is a one of two cover songs, this one having been performed by Sarah Vaughan. It’s a haunting and alluring song – Neko sings it perfectly. The instruments in this are pretty quiet and minimal, which works great here. It sounds like it could be sung in a seedy bar at 2 in the morning.

“Stinging Velvet” is one of my other favorite tracks off this album. I really like the guitars here too! There are some fantastic lyrics in this track: “Water through my lashes/Look just like Christmas lights” and “Cold and shivering warm” are the stand outs for me.

Subject matter-wise, “Pretty Girls” is the heaviest song on this album. Simply put, it’s about girls at an abortion clinic. But like “Deep Red Bells” it’s incredibly sympathetic – so it goes without saying that it’s also pro-choice. My favorite lines, maybe because they ring so true, are “Wind your flimsy blue gowns tight around you/Around curves so comely and sinister/They blame it on you, pretty girls.”

“I Missed the Point” doesn’t impress me much. Neko’s voice sounds great at least. I much prefer the track that follows. That would be the title track “Blacklisted”! It’s some more of that country-noir. It makes me think of a ghost train in the middle of the night. Neko’s voice is so powerful here as she considers it.

And then we have “I Wish I Was the Moon.” Ohhh, my heart. I think I mentioned before that I never really cared for this song until I heard it in concert. I don’t know how or why that changed things, but now it’s one of my favorites. I love how quiet it starts and how it flares up slowly and then drops out again suddenly so that we can appreciate the last few notes of the song. It’s so emotionally heavy, I can’t help but feel my heart sink.

Next up we have another cover, “Runnin’ Out of Fools” as previously sung by Aretha Franklin, though I don’t remember hearing my parents play this one growing up. Anyway, Neko sings it great! She really knows how to belt out a note without having it overwhelm the song.

“Ghost Writing” – more country noir! You know, this one reminds me a lot of Sheryl Crow’s “The Book,” a seriously underrated song off her album of the same name. It’s not just the writing themes in the songs’ titles. They’re both very dark and spooky and bitter-sounding tracks. And just overall they sound very similar. Anyway, it’s a fantastic track and it stays with you after it ends. (Well, both of them do!)

Finally, we end with “Outro With Bees (Reprise)” which is the perfect track to come after “Ghost Writing” since it starts out with some unnerving radio static going in and out with various bits of tense dialogue and music. This goes on for almost half a minute, and then we get the reprise of that sad little song before it fades back out into white radio noise and fragments of music and commercials. Great, great, great final track.

Of her solo albums, Blacklisted is the most country of them all. If you want to cut your teeth on this genre but you’re unsure (next to rap, country tends to be the genre most people say they don’t like), then ease into it with some Neko Case and Blacklisted! It goes down easy and is a real treat for the ears. And to bring it back to Sheryl Crow, if you enjoy her early music, then I’m positive you’ll like Neko Case. So give it a go!

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Music Memoirs: The Tigers Have Spoken

New feature! I’m calling it Music Memoirs. Like a lot of people, every once in awhile, a song will make me think of some random event in my life. Maybe the song was playing at the time or maybe it just reminds me of that event because of the lyrics. I kind of did this before, although I didn’t know I was doing it at the time, when I talked about “Poke and Destroy.” So this isn’t just going to be “Oh! This is the song that was playing during my first kiss!” I’ll keep this feature more interesting than that.

So let’s get into it! Today’s Music Memoir involves the song “The Tigers Have Spoken” by Neko Case, from her live album of the same name. It’s a great song, very Neko in its nature/animal themes, but a very sad one too. It’s self-explanatory from the first verse: “They shot the tiger on his chain.” Its a true story – not necessarily in that Neko read about one particular incident in the paper and then wrote this song, but in that this is something that happens on occasion. People keep exotic animals illegally, even big dangerous ones like tigers, and when things go wrong, the animal is killed.

I know this because it happened right around my home town. Ten years ago, a tiger escaped from an illegally operated animal sanctuary in a town called Moorpark, about an hour northwest of Los Angeles. I wasn’t living in Moorpark, but I was going to school there. I was a freshman at the time, and I was only in my second semester when I heard about this escaped tiger. It was all over the news. I don’t remember being particularly worried since the sightings were all in the hills around horse ranches, parks, houses at the edge of town, etc. My house wasn’t anywhere near the sightings and the school was in a busy area. It was backed up against the hills as well, technically, but I figured a tiger would have no interest in wandering around a giant paved area, i.e. the parking lots that surrounded the school. Still, others remained on alert. Years later, I would learn from a friend who was living in Moorpark at the time that she was extra vigilant because she owned a dog.

The tiger kept the entire town on edge for weeks until one day it showed up in someone’s backyard and they called the authorities. I guess it wound up wandering too close to a school (I remember it being in the morning) and they figured it posed a threat, so they shot it dead. It was incredibly disappointing to learn that that was how it ended.

All the other animals in the sanctuary were transferred to other sites and the couple who had owned them were arrested and charged. The whole affair ended up being a lot more dramatic than I knew (or at least remembered) at the time. It wasn’t just an escaped tiger – it was spooked horses running onto the road, one of them being hit by a car and causing a human fatality. It was a wife who allegedly attempted to shoot her husband during a domestic dispute (they owned the tiger). And it wasn’t just one tiger, but two more, as well as three lions, a snow leopard, a lynx, a bobcat, and more running free around the property rather than in enclosures. It was probably one of the most dramatic events to ever happen in that sleepy little town.

And now I think of it every time I hear this song.*

*(Includes a funny story by Neko at the beginning before it punches you in the gut with sadness! Wahoo! You’ll probably turn your volume up during the speaking part, but right after she laughs and says “But we’ll still play it for you,” you’ll want to turn it down again because the song is a little louder by contrast.)

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Revisited: The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

You’d think being a music blog, I’d make this post about the Grammys, but I didn’t watch the Grammys and I don’t listen to a lot of music that gets nominated for Grammys, so here we are! (Just in case anyone thought I was trying to be professional or that I knew what I was talking about.)

Instead, I’d like to revisit an album I reviewed way back when I started this blog (I’ll probably make “Revisited” a recurring feature, like Music Tidbits or Music That Made Me). Actually, this goes back to my very second post on this blog! This week, I’d like to revisit Neko Case’s “The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You”!

I feel like when I wrote that post, I wasn’t yet fully invested in the album. I read it again and I realize I really breezed over it. I’m terrible when it comes to giving my opinion about a thing immediately after watching/listening to/consuming it. I’m the worst person you could invite to a focus group. I need time to digest things, to really mull them over and think about what I did or didn’t like, and why. This is especially the case with music. I really, REALLY need the time to listen to the album as a whole – repeatedly – and then dissect it track by track. I need to get tired of it, put it away, then come back to it.

So now that it’s been well over a year since this album was released and I got my grubby little paws on it, I’ve DEFINITELY formed a better opinion about it! Well, it’s still not my favorite Neko Case album, BUT I do enjoy it a lot more than I initially did.

So let’s start at the beginning. (Where else?) “Wild Creatures” is a little underwhelming as an intro track. It didn’t have the same oomph for me that the opening tracks from her previous three studio albums did. I DO like these lyrics though:

“Hey, little girl, would you like to be
The king’s pet or the king?”
“I’d choose odorless and invisible,
But otherwise I would choose the king.”

There’s something about choosing to be “odorless and invisible” that I can relate to in my worst moments.

“Night Still Comes” is one of my favorites from this album. No clue what it’s about, but it kind of speaks to me as being about being fiercely independent and misunderstood for it, but then deciding you know what? I don’t need anyone to understand me. Umm, but really I have no idea. I still really like the line “But I’ve revenged myself all over myself/There’s nothing you can do to me.”

“Man” is still also my favorite! Oh my gosh, I LOVE this song. Neko is obviously playing around with gender roles and expectations here. It took me awhile to understand that. Like, it seems there’s this common theme that girls are either taught to be proper and ladylike (read: submissive, passive, seen but not heard, etc) OR they’re taught that to be feminine is to be weak, pathetic, and stupid. Neko (in this song) is playing with that latter theme here. She’s been raised to be a “man” – tough, bold, brave, strong – BUT she refuses to see women as the opposite. I mean, just take the line “A woman’s heart is the watermark/By which I measure everything” – and she really draws out that “everything” when she sings it. And then, of course, she sings at the end “‘Cause you didn’t know what a man was/Until I showed you.” It’s just fantastic.

I barely mentioned “I’m From Nowhere” last time, except for a few lyrics. I mean, what? This song is GREAT. It’s quiet – Just Neko and a guitar. It’s all about identity being tied to where you’re from. Neko’s father was a Vietnam War vet, and her parents divorced when she was young, so she moved around a lot growing up. I did too (but not NEARLY across as many states) so I can relate a little bit. So, she’s from “Nowhere” and that suits her just fine.

And how in the world could I skip “Bracing For Sunday”?? “I’m a Friday night girl/Bracing for Sunday to come.” These are just…FANTASTIC lyrics. Friday, the day everyone goes out and gets wild, and Sunday, the day everyone atones for it. I just really like the way she sings it, like she’s not afraid of it. She’s ready for it. This song is so charged and restless.

“Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” is still a wonderful, beautifully sad track. And I still really want to know where this one came from – but I also feel like it’s none of my business because it might be personal. Which makes it all the more fascinating and touching.

“Calling Cards” might be the only straightforward love song on here. Which makes it kind of an interesting track considering the rest of the album is so introspective, even when it seems to involve other people. I mean, this is pretty much the theme song to a long distance relationship. It’s sweet.

“City Swan” – another one that hardly got a mention! But it’s so good! It goes back to the theme of wanderlust that “I’m From Nowhere” flirts with. Sure, there are places that could be called hometowns. But when you’ve spent so much time away from them, going back to them makes you feel like an alien – completely out of your element. To be a city swan is to be someone who was transformed from a small town duckling. You’re unable to reconnect. And this part in particular just really hits me: “And it breaks my heart just like the day/That I looked down and I realized/I’d been sailing so long I’d become the shore.” Wow.

“Afraid” … Um. I don’t care for this one too much? Neko didn’t write it (but Nico did!), so I dunno. I do like the line “You are beautiful and you are alone” though.

“Local Girl” – This one is pretty nice, but for the longest time I thought she was singing “All of you lie about Sunday/You’re on a first name basis” – which made sense to me – but it’s actually “All of you lie about someday.” Which doesn’t make as much sense to me? I was listening to some old episodes of some podcasts I don’t normally listen to because they had interviews with Neko Case back from September 2013, when she released this album. Anyway, she was saying that this song is about how people talk about love all the time when they don’t know anything about it. It still doesn’t make much sense to me. But I still like it!

“Where Did I Leave That Fire?” is a really eerie one. Not just because of the dark, haunting, submarine sounds, but because it’s kind of got a little bit existential horror going on, at least for an artist. If you listen to it from the perspective of an artist, you’ll get what the “fire” is. And something about the way she sings “I wanted so badly not to be me” hits heavy.

“Ragtime” is another favorite of mine! This one really, really gets to me too. I talked about this one before (#5 on my list!). It’s very much like a phoenix rising from the flames. Just listen to the lyrics: “I’ll reveal myself when I’m ready,/I’ll reveal myself invincible soon.” I also just really like the lines “I am one and the same/I am useful and strange.” It’s so soothing, for how cacophonous it is at the end. It’s just feels like letting go.

“Madonna of the Wasps” – Another song not written by Neko! (It was written by Robyn Hitchcock. Just because I wrote that sentence, doesn’t mean I know who that is.) It’s so hippie-dippie. I kind of like it, but I also have to be in the mood for it, because it’s kind of uncharacteristic for Neko. It’s not really her style!

And OH MY GOSH, how did I NOT mention the version of “Magpie to the Morning” on this album, because it is one of my FAVORITE songs and I LOVE this version of it. See how disappointed I am in you, me from over a year ago? Well, I guess there were some things in my life that happened that changed that since then. This song just means to much to me, and I am so in love with the way it’s performed here. I could go on forever about it.

“Yon Ferrets Return” – Haha, I still like this one a lot! It’s just so much fun! There’s that wanderlust theme again. It just sweeps you right up! I want to jump on that covered wagon it makes me picture and ride off into the sunset. I know, I’m weird.

So that’s about it! What a much better review for an album that’s much better than I treated it over a year ago. Forgive me, Neko! And forgive me, readers. You both deserved better, so I hope I gave it this time!

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Music Tidbits

I’m pretty busy this week, so today you get a Music Tidbits post! Instead of a hodge-podge of things, as I did before, however, this one actually will have a sort of theme to it. The theme here being relaxing music. Appropriate with how busy (and a tad stressful) things have been for me lately! So lay back and enjoy some random chillout-esque music (that isn’t really chillout)…

First up, I’d like to go with some perhaps odd choices: Video game music! When I was in high school, the Spyro the Dragon series was my absolute favorite video game series, particularly Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage! I had an obsession with dragons, but it helped that it was incredibly fun too. And the music (composed by drummer Stewart Copeland of The Police), was fantastic. I still get nostalgic when I hear it. But there are also some tracks that are a great source of stress relief, and I love to play them from time to time when I’m feeling nervous, anxious, or upset. These would be the realm themes:

Summer Forest

Autumn Plains

Winter Tundra

Sometimes, when playing this game, I would just leave the TV on and let the music play on loop while I did something else. It’s pretty much just ambient music. But it’s great ambient music. Put on some headphones (or just play it through your speakers), put one of these tracks on repeat, lay back, close your eyes, and you’ll feel all your stress melt away in no time. That sounds so corny, but it’s true and I swear by it.

Next up, well, this isn’t really music at all, even though it’s on an album. It’s the track “Marais La Nuit” (French for “Marsh at Night”) off of Middle Cyclone by Neko Case. Really, all she did was record the noises around her farm at night (it has to do with the nature themes of the album). I guess you could get it from an ambient noise machine, though I don’t think I’ve heard one with cricket and frog noises. But say you don’t have one of those (or a laptop handy to find the sounds). In that, case you’d pop in your headphones and play this!

It came in quite handy when I spent the night in a hotel room with my parents last summer and forgot that my dad snored (LOUDLY). I put this on loop, set the sleep timer, and I was out by the second loop.

Don’t run away before I’ve had a chance to explain this next one, because it’s Justin Bieber singing “U Smile.” Or more specifically, it’s Justin Bieber singing “U Smile” 800% slower.

This may be the closest you come to having an out of body experience. My favorite description of this song was something like “It’s like the ocean…but, like, in SPACE…” That’s…actually a pretty accurate description. Put this one on if you ever need to Zen out. Drugs not necessary.

The last song I want to share, I discovered in college. It’s from this kind of oddball Japanese movie called Ping Pong, which is about just that, basically. I’ve tried to find the soundtrack version on YouTube, but I can only find the album version. Which is unfortunate, because it’s so pretty throughout until you get to the last 30 seconds of the album version and it goes all wonky and loud. Just stop it around 6:30 at the first fade out and you’ll do fine.

Ahhhh…Hope you all enjoyed this mini-chillout-esque playlist! Go do some yoga or look at the stars or something, man…

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Top 10 – Neko Case

I was going to do a post about the release of BLUE by iamamiwhoami. The album finally dropped and the BLUE island (an interactive website with social media aspects) opened for those of us who had pre-ordered. But they sent this email about not sharing certain unreleased content or they’d close up the island and I’m just super paranoid about doing or saying something I ought not do or say, so I’m going to pass on that for now. More reviews as their YouTube channel updates, perhaps!

So what will I talk about this week? My top 10 favorite Neko Case songs! I don’t have ALL of her work – I really need to get on that – so this will just be her solo work. Not with Her Boyfriends, not with The New Pornographers, not with The Sadies – just solo Neko Case. You should know by now, and it goes without saying, this list will be in no particular order. Here we go!

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1) Wayfaring Stranger

This one feels like cheating a little, because it’s a traditional folk song that Neko covered on her live album The Tigers Have Spoken. But she sings it fantastically. Her voice was made for this song. It’s so beautiful. She really knows how to belt out those plaintive notes. And the minimal use of banjo and vocals is perfection. I can just picture some lonely cowboy riding his horse across the desert. I never get tired of listening to this song. It gives me chills every time.

2) Things That Scare Me

Speaking of cowboys, this song is another one that makes me think of them! It’s got a very country vibe to it, but not the way you’re thinking (if you’re thinking of most country songs you hear on the radio). It’s those guitars and banjos, but it’s Neko’s cool yet expressive voice too. I think this was the first Neko Case song I heard and it had me hooked from just one play. If I could only choose one song from this album to listen to for the rest of my life, I think it might be this one.

3) Margaret Vs. Pauline

Ah, yes. I’ve talked about this one before. This is one of those songs that gets me right in the heart. I feel it every time I listen to it. It’s so perfectly written – both the lyrics and the music. They work so well together. It’s so full of poetry (“Girl with the parking lot eyes/Margaret is the fragment of a name”) and tragedy (“Two girls ride the blue line/Two girls walk down the same street/One left a sweater sitting on the train/And the other lost three fingers at the cannery”).

4) Magpie to the Morning

I’m going to cheat a little and say this is both the original version on Middle Cyclone and the version on The Worse Things Get… because they are both lovely in their own ways – though I think I may like the latter just a little bit more. (I guess I like my Neko with a side of banjos?) It’s such a sweet song from nature to humans. It feels very personal and hopeful. It makes me feel better about things to come when I’m uncertain about what those things may be.

5) Ragtime

Suuuuch a good song, and it was amazing live too! It’s a great pick-me-up song, without being forced or hokey. It’s just simmering with strength. She goes from sounding soft and uncertain to singing with power and conviction. Like she’s saying “I am Neko, hear me roar!” The way it gets cacophonous at the end with the layers of instruments and vocals clashing just makes sense somehow. Everything feels like it’s going to be okay by the end of the song.

6) Maybe Sparrow

If this song were a poem, it might be my favorite. Songs are pretty much poems though, just more dressed up, so maybe it already is my favorite poem! On the surface, it seems like Neko is literally singing to a sparrow. And maybe she is, but there’s something deeper here. The way she sings it, you can hear her own fears and doubts. The sparrow is just a vessel. I think if I were to introduce someone to Neko Case, this would be the first song I’d use to test the waters.

7) This Tornado Loves You

This is one of the most beautiful and desperate love songs I’ve ever heard, without the heavy-handed corniness. The instrumentation is great, and the idea that Neko’s love is a tornado that destroys everything in its path and can only be tamed by one love is fantastic. It’s brilliant how she describes/sings about herself as a literal tornado too. Love can be that powerful. It’s a force of nature. One of my favorite love songs of all time, without a doubt.

8) Hold On, Hold On

This is such a personal song. I’ve written before about how this was an autobiographical song for Neko. But instead of feeling like a stranger looking in, you can feel every emotion as she sings it. Uncertainty, anxiety, sorrow, bitterness…It’s a mess of emotions but she sings them all beautifully. Whenever I’m feeling any of those and I hear this song, I feel better. Like I’m not crazy for feeling them. Another brilliantly composed song.

9) I Wish I Was the Moon

You know, until fairly recently, I wasn’t crazy about this song. I usually skipped it. And then I heard Neko sing it in concert and it was like an arrow through the heart. This song is so heavy. It’s like getting hit with an emotional sledgehammer. It knocks you off your feet. What’s with the weapons metaphors? I don’t know, but they make sense to me! The point being, this is one of her most emotional songs. Wowee-wow.

10) Lion’s Jaws

I can’t remember if it was Neko or her backup signer, Kelly Hogan, who described this as a “make-out song,” but whoever it was, they were right! This song is hot and heavy – and sexy in a way that only Neko can manage. I swoon when I hear it. (See? It’s not just Goldfrapp songs that do that to me!) “[Falling] into the lion’s jaws” is a beautiful and poetic way of describing one’s own seduction. This is another one I don’t ever get tired of hearing.

Once again, it was hard to choose just ten songs, so here are some honorable mentions (It was almost painful to leave some of these off!):

-Deep Red Bells

-Vengeance Is Sleeping

-Night Still Comes

-The Pharaohs

-Star Witness

Just think of this list as my perfect Neko Case concert. I can’t wait until the next time I get to hear her live. If you think her voice sounds great through your speakers or headphones, you haven’t heard ANYTHING until you’ve heard her through a microphone on a stage. (insert dreamy sighs here)

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Squidbillies

Okay, I feel a little silly writing a post about the Squidbillies opening theme, but I swear there’s a good reason for it! And besides, the opening theme to a TV show is still music!

Let’s just go ahead and take a listen to the original:

Haha! What a silly little country ditty, right? The lyrics are pretty funny, anyway. “Sometimes I wish the sun would just explode” kind of fits in with the show’s absurd and surreal themes. Admittedly, I’ve only seen a few episodes. It’s typical late night Adult Swim fare, as far as I can tell. Televised fodder for stoners. (Not saying that’s a bad thing or a good thing – it’s just a thing!)

So the creative minds behind Squidbillies have decided to mix things up a bit by having various artists record the opening theme. These include King Kahn and the Shrines, Centro-Matic, Todd Rundgren, and…wait for it…Neko Case!

WOAH. I like this angry, bitter Neko! And I want MORE! The silly little country ditty suddenly becomes this gritty noir-Western theme song. I could almost take the opening visuals seriously if it weren’t a cartoon squid. The style reminds me a lot of some of Neko’s early stuff, particularly some tracks from Blacklisted (“Ghost Writing” and “Runnin’ Out of Fools” come to mind). Gosh, what I wouldn’t give for this to be a full-length song.

This isn’t the first time Neko has worked with a Williams Street production – you may recall my post about her Christmas song for Aqua Teen Hunger Force. I have to wonder if Neko is a night owl who stays up watching Adult Swim while she’s on tour. Or maybe the folks over at Williams Street are just fans of hers. Anyway, I love these collaborations! It shows that Neko loves to have fun. And I love artists who love to have fun!

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Middle Cyclone

I completely forgot to mention the Neko Case concert in my Music Tidbits post last week! Well, rest assured it was amazing. I actually guessed correctly on a majority of songs (maybe 70-75%) and there were a few surprises! She talked to the audience and her band quite a bit, and her backup singer was a regular chatterbox. And Neko was sassy alright. She told someone to put their phone away just a few lines into her first song without missing a beat. The theater went crazy over that. And she did not one, but TWO encores, which no one was expecting. She gave us some sass for that too (everyone had begun to leave after the first one).

So overall, it was a fantastic concert, but I’m not going to talk about that. I’m going to review an album I didn’t realize how much I loved until after that concert: Middle Cyclone. It was always kind of just A-OK on my list, but now I think that it might be my favorites – lyrically at least. Blacklisted  is still my favorite soundwise, though without personal bias, I still admit Middle Cyclone is the stronger album.

Let’s start with the album cover:

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How badass is this album cover?!? It’s on equal footing with the cover for Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell for me. Seriously badass. It’s been my desktop background for awhile now. I decided yesterday I needed to get it as a poster. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find this specific picture, but I found a similar one!

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It doesn’t have the text, and it’s only 11×13, but I can’t wait to have it framed and on my wall. These two pictures make me feel like I can do anything. I want them forever.

But enough about these amazing pictures! On to the album! As I mentioned before, the album opens with one of my FAVORITE Neko Case songs, “This Tornado Loves You.” I just love everything about this song. I’ve never experienced a tornado (not counting the Twister ride at Universal Studios Orlando anyway) but the opening guitar riffs sound like the closest interpretation to the spirit and sound of a tornado that I can imagine. Somehow, that guitar sounds like it’s spinning. And then those opening lyrics: “My love I am the speed of sound./I left them motherless, fatherless.” The whole song is just so metaphorical. I could post the entire song’s lyrics, I love them so much, but I’ll spare you. Other standout lyrics include “I carved your name across three counties/And ground it in with bloody hides.” Also “I have waited with a glacier’s patience.” And even “When I’d rake the springtime across your sheets.” The whole song, of course, is just one big metaphor, with Neko describing herself as a tornado wildly chasing after the person she still loves even after they’ve left her. (Neko did play this song in concert, but at a faster tempo than the album version. Which was a bit sad, because it felt like they were rushing through it and I wanted to savor it.) The whole song sounds like it’s being played inside a spinning tornado. It’s just brilliantly crafted, every bit of it.

“The Next Time You Say ‘Forever'” has the complete opposite message. In it, she wants nothing to do with this pathetic person who wants her to stay, well, “forever.” “The next time you say ‘forever,'” she sings “I will punch you in your face.” And in the end: “You never know when I’ll show you the never.” A great, great song. As someone who grew up moving a lot to have it result in some occasional wanderlust in my adulthood, I can feel for her in this song.

Next is the song I’m surprised wasn’t used in the movie Blackfish,considering it’s all about that sort of thing, “People Got a Lotta Nerve.”

I mean, you can’t hit it on the head any harder than

You know they call them “killer” whales?!

But you seemed surprised when it pinned you down

To the bottom of the tank

Where you can’t turn around

It took half your leg and both your lungs.

This song was actually written and released BEFORE the 2010 death of Seaworld trainer Dawn Brancheau, which makes it incredibly uncanny going back and listening to it.

Neko admitted she hadn’t played the next track in a long time: “Polar Nettles.” I usually skipped it before if it ever came up on my playlist, but after hearing it in concert I think it’s a song worth appreciating. It’s got this marching, contemplative, solemn sound to it. It’s appropriate considering it seems to be about death. Neko’s voice sounds downright creepy as she chants “Someday soon…Someday soon.”

“Vengeance Is Sleeping,” thematically, reminds me A LOT of Björk’s “Possibly Maybe.” Specifically in that it’s about someone who isn’t quite over an old flame and is wondering where they are and what they’re doing. Neko sings “If you’re not by now dead and buried/You are most certifiably married.” But my favorite part of this song comes later on:

My love has never lived indoors

I’ve had to drag it home by force

Hired hounds at both my wrists

Damp and bruised by stranger’s kisses on my lips.

It’s so visual and metaphorical at the same time. I just love the idea about her love never living indoors. Something about it speaks to me.

Next comes a very hippie-ish anthem, which is a cover, “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth.” It’s a very good choice, because the whole album has themes of nature throughout. And she sings it beautifully. Good choice, Neko! Good choice!

After that comes the title track, “Middle Cyclone,” which carries the main theme of the album: reconciling the fact that she needs love rather than continuing to live the way she grew up, with a stronger attachment to nature and animals than people. She shows what a brilliant songwriter she is with lines like “Can’t scrape together quite enough/To ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love.” My absolute favorite part though (and it might stand as one of my favorite lines/lyrics of all time) is this:

I lie across the path waiting

Just for a chance to be

A spider web trapped in your lashes

For that, I would trade you my empire for ashes

If you’ve ever felt that way about someone, then her hushed voice speaks volumes to you. It works as the title track, and being smack dab in the middle of the track list, it works for the entire album.

I love the opening imagery in “Fever”:

In an open field at dusk

To footfalls I awoke

Marching ants across my temple, oh

Their feet had no intention

They followed some magnetic drum

Prisoners of their destination

The wobbly opening notes and the rest of the lyrics that follow make this sound like a song you would hear in a fever dream (or maybe it was inspired by one), so the song was named rather appropriately.

“Magpie to the Morning” may have sneaked it’s way onto my Neko Case favorite songs list without me knowing…She didn’t play it at the concert, sadly, but I’ve still discovered a new found attachment to it. I think it’s the way she sings it combined with the theme of the song. I feel like there might be a little wordplay with the “Morning” in the song…Though it’s spelled one way, it could be heard as “mourning.” Later she sings about how a vulture “…Laughed under his breath/Because you thought that you could outrun sorrow.” It’s a lot about having to be encouraged by nature to dig herself out of the dark pit she’s buried herself in.

“I’m An Animal” goes on with the main theme of the album. When she sings “I love you this hour, this hour today,” I can’t help but think of Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like A Bird.” Now that I think of it, these songs make a great pairing, thematically. I love when, speaking about her fears, Neko sings “But my courage is roaring like the sound of the sun/’Cause it’s vain about its mane and will reveal them to no one.”

“Prison Girls” is an odd song, in that I can’t figure out if Neko is really in prison or is just dreaming about it. It’s ambiguous like that (or maybe it’s just me). But it’s a fantastic song. I love it when she sings “I love your long shadows and your gun powder eyes.” I’m kind of waiting to see if they ever use it in Orange is the New Black, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of song that would show up there, somehow.

“Don’t Forget Me” is another cover song, and another great choice. I guess there’s not much to say about it, but I love the way she sings “I’ll miss you when I’m lonely/I’ll miss the alimony too.” She sings it very bluesy, but very sassy too. Very Neko.

The next track she played in concert, which was a surprise to me, and that was “The Pharaohs”! I just love love loooooove the way she croons “You said I was your blue, blue baby…and you were right.” It sounds so pained, but not in an overly dramatic emo way.

“Red Tide” is the final song on the album. It’s a rather cynical track to end with, but she played it at the concert too and it sounded amazing.

Actually, I lied. The final track is “Marais La Nuit,” which is just a 31-plus minute-long track consisting of the nighttime sounds around a pond on Neko Case’s farm in Vermont. It’s truly an appropriate ending to an album she recorded in a barn on her property (which explains its big, almost echoing sound throughout).

Looking back on my past reviews, I think I might have to change what I’ve said and recommend Middle Cyclone to first-time Neko Case listeners. The whole album is just so well produced and lyrically brilliant. It’s a real treat to listen to, and I mean really listen to, not just treat as background noise (unless we’re talking about “Marais La Nuit”). If you value good songwriters, give Neko Case and Middle Cyclone a go.

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