Neko Case, fan-eater

I would bet the Vermont farm she now apparently owns that no one in the past decade has put up with more dunderheaded audience hoots of horndog devotion than Neko Case. Soaking up one of her shows is about as close as you can come to feeling like a construction worker without actually learning to operate a backhoe.

In San Francisco several years back, one dude just chucked all caution to the wind and requested she take off her shirt. Case responded with an unfazed demeanor, something to the effect of, “No, no, you wouldn't actually like that — it'd be like pulling up an old piece of plywood that's been stuck in your front yard for years.” That (briefly) shut 'em up.

Earlier this spring, no audience exchange at her New York show was that, uh, evocative. “I love you, Neko Case!” someone blathered wetly. “Thank you — me, too,” she replied drily. And then she nonchalantly blasted off into another country-noir flamethrower about how she's a predator, a natural disaster, a man-man-man-man-man-maneater. Bathed in ghostly echo and uncharacteristically pretty pop euphoria, “This Tornado Loves You,” the leadoff track on her latest and best album, Middle Cyclone, sweetly details her path of destruction: “My love, I am the speed of sound/I left them motherless/Fatherless/Their souls dangling inside-out from their mouths/But it's never enough/I want you.” Near song's end, she demurely moans “This tornado loves you” over and over, before slashing out with a breathtaking “What would make you believe me?” — a bombastic fifth gear no other extant singer can shift into. It's the exact moment at which you start believing, even as it only exacerbates the hoots 'n' hollers 'n' wolf whistles from her leering loons at this particular New York show. This is the bizarre dichotomy of a Neko Case performance: transcendent highlights that tilt heavenward undercut and often intertwined with moments where your eyes simply roll in that direction.

Case's peak, as gorgeously captured on Middle Cyclone, is perhaps best enjoyed on the disc itself, alone, with no one around to ruin it, including her. Past albums like 2002's Blacklisted and 2006's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood had fragmentary moments of greatness, but painted a maddeningly abstract and obfuscating portrait of their creator. This one feels personal, like more than a collection of random hard-boiled bon mots. “Can't give up actin' tough/It's all that I'm made of,” the fox confesses, over a gentle acoustic guitar and a precociously clunky music box. “Can't scrape together quite enough to ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love.” Plenty of tough talk abounds (“The next time you say 'forever'/I will punch you in your face”), but the record's more vulnerable moments sketch out her character far more ably than hundreds of fawning reviews and profiles have managed. The photo of her in The New York Times Magazine, seated at one of half a dozen battered pianos lined up in her converted barn, is basically pornography to a specific sect of “just real people in a room together playing real instruments with no computers and no bullshit” Americana devotees, but the way multiple eerie piano lines crowd the soft, insecure plaint of “Vengeance Is Sleeping” help justify the fuss.

That fuss — that lust, both literal and critical — is still a hassle, though. Case's best stuff is biblical in its scope and implication, seeds of both total destruction and eternal salvation, as delivered by someone with Patsy Cline's cannonball voice and Flannery O'Connor's deeply mordant wit. Yelling dumb shit at her in concert feels like a particularly egregious waste of time and energy. Indulge instead in Cyclone and find something to cling to as it passes over; its best moments, shockingly real and expertly surreal in equal measure, work best with no commentary, from within or without: “Yes, there are things I'm still quite sure of/I love you this hour/The hour today/And heaven will smell like the airport.” There is no need to announce that you love her.

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