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I would bet the Vermont farm she now apparently owns that no one in the past decade has put up with more slobbering, dunderheaded audience hoots 'n' hollers 'n' wolf whistles 'n' foul oaths 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/sense/decorum to the wind and requested she take off her shirt; Neko responded with the unfazed, elegant, bemused demeanor of someone accustomed to dealing with this sort of thing, 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.
No audience exchange last Monday night at Nokia Theatre was that, uh, evocative. "I love you, Neko Case!" someone would blather wetly. "Thank you—me, too," she would reply, dryly. And then she'd nonchalantly blast 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
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, and this is the exact moment at which you start believing, even as it only exacerbates the hoots 'n' hollers 'n' wolf whistles from Nokia's leering loons.
This is the bizarre dichotomy of a Neko Case show: transcendent highlights that tilt heavenward undercut and often intertwined with moments where your eyes simply roll in that direction. Between songs, she banters aimlessly with backup singer/jovial cohort Kelly Hogan, amassing free-associative comedy routines about rattlesnakes and Harry Nilsson until Kelly laughs so hard she snorts. It can feel as if you're watching their Saturday Night Live audition reel, long, awkward pauses as her crack gothic-twang backing band tunes, broken up by giggling and more uncouth crowd ribaldry. This is moderately entertaining, but deadly in terms of momentum: Particularly when plumbing her back catalog, back when that air-raid-siren voice and defiant demeanor overshadowed her oft-slight songs themselves, even highlights like the profoundly unsettling serial-killer meditation "Deep Red Bells" and the sad-sack lullaby anthem "I Wish I Was the Moon Tonight" can't generate much heat when starkly bifurcated by floundering onstage jokes and offstage jerkoffs. Nokia itself, too, ain't exactly ideal, its hollowed-out sound clashing unpleasantly with all that reverb, as if she is echoing faintly from somewhere very far away, as if you're watching her through the wrong end of a telescope, as if either she's at the bottom of a well or you are.
So while both singer and backing band are technically, tonally flawless onstage, her 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, feels whole, feels 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 a half-dozen beat-up 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. Neko'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.