They don’t make country queens like they used to. Those singers with big-sky voices who somehow managed to sound both tough and teary at the same time – people like Patsy Cline or Tammy Wynette or Kitty Wells.
If there’s one latterday singer deserving of such company, though, it’s Neko Case. Like members of that elite, she pulls off the enviable trick of appearing both simple and sophisticated, but crucially, has never flirted with the mawkish mush that too often passes for “authentic” country. She’s more attuned to the vernacular idioms of rural music than the false trinketry of Nashville Central. Her sixth album Middle Cyclone both reasserts and expands on all that. It’s more than just country; it’s a glorious pop album with roots in classic rock, folk, Motown and more.
Nowhere is this unfettered style more evident than on Case’s cover of Harry Nilsson’s break-up ballad, “Don’t Forget Me”. Out goes the orchestral largesse, in comes her eight-pianos-in-a-barn approach. The result, with Case at her most delicately stoic, is truly moving. There’s a similar feel to “Vengeance Is Sleeping”, another restless anti-ballad intoned over flowing acoustic guitar. And while prior form has given her a reputation as something of a robust free-spirit, this record carries a fair share of unlikely love songs. The title track itself is, for Case, a lyrical rarity: “I can’t give up acting tough / It’s all that I’m made of / Can’t scrape together quite enough / To ride a bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love…”
Of course even the most independent spirits need help from time to time – M Ward and Garth Hudson, members of Giant Sand, Los Lobos and Calexico are all present and correct on Middle Cyclone lending their distinctive instrumental hands – but this ultimately Case’s tour de force, and hers alone.
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