Neko Case looks formidable on the cover of Middle Cyclone, brandishing a sword in one hand while crouching low on the hood of a muscle car. It's mostly camp, of course -- the sort of superwoman image that Quentin Tarantino might have used for Death Proof's ad campaign -- but it also draws contrast with Case's past albums, two of which featured moody shots of the songwriter sprawled on the floor, ostensibly knocked out. Middle Cyclone isn't the polar opposite of Blacklisted's downcast Americana; there are still moments of heartbreak on this release, and Case channels the sad cowgirl blues with all the nuance of Patsy Cline. Multiple years in the New Pornographers' lineup have brightened her outlook, though, and Middle Cyclone balances its melancholia with some of the most pop-influenced choruses of Case's career. "I'm a man-man-maneater," she sings on "People Got a Lotta Nerve," a snappy gem of vocal harmonies and jangled guitars. The mammal metaphors continue with "I'm an Animal," where a coed choir hums a wordless, hooky refrain. These songs are still filled with earth tones -- they may even pitch their tent closer to the folk camp than Carl Newman's power pop -- but their venture into brighter territory is a confident one.
Of course, Neko Case already explored the animal world with 2006's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, and Middle Cyclone devotes more time to weather, nature, and the stormy atmospherics provided by her backup band. There are few voices as haunting as Case's alto, and she flaunts her vocal chops over a number of semi-ballads, from the cinematic "Prison Girls" (a country-noir love letter to someone with "long shadows and gunpowder eyes") to the sparse title track. She does a surprise duet with chirping birds during "Polar Nettles" -- a result of the pastoral recording sessions, which took place in a barn -- before tackling a cover of Sparks' "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth," whose title very well may be the album's mission statement. There's still room to tackle love from the perspective of different characters -- a man in "Vengeance Is Sleeping," a disbeliever in "The Next Time You Say Forever," a smitten wind vortex in "This Tornado Loves You" -- but nature remains at the forefront of Middle Cyclone, whose 14 songs conclude with a half-hour field recording of noisy crickets and frogs. Moody and engaging throughout, Cyclone is another tour de force from Neko Case, if not as immediately arresting as Fox Confessor.