On the cover of her latest album, Neko Case wields a sword in her right hand while looking straight ahead and crouching down on the hood of a late-'60s Cougar. In a way, the image sort of evokes Zoe Belle hanging on the hood of that Challenger in Death Proof, which seems kind of fitting. Case, whose presence is commanding, seems like the kind of gal who would do her own stunts.
Quite possibly the best album of her career, Middle Cyclone is built on the strength of Case's vocals, which are as crisp, strong and pure as ever, as captivating on buoyant tunes such as "This Tornado Loves You" and "People Got a Lotta Nerve" as it is warm on tracks like "Polar Nettles" and "Vengeance Is Sleeping."
Cyclone garnered two Grammy nominations, in addition to being the best-reviewed and fastest-selling album of Case's career. Despite the subsequent accolades, Case says that when she was making the album, she didn't even realize she had something special in the works. "I was too far inside the dark mine of mixing," she recalls.
Neko Case, with Judy Collins, Jim Lauderdale, Paper Bird and Trace Bundy. 7 p.m. Saturday, March 6, Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Denver Performing Arts Complex, $35-$140, 303-777-1003.
Unlike past albums, for which she recruited musicians to play, Middle Cyclone marked the first album she's made with a band already in place, which allowed her to have more time for rehearsal with the band before making the album and eventually playing the songs live.
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Getting dialed in with the band was significant, but so was switching things up when it came time to make the record, which is why Case split her time between Tucson, Brooklyn, Toronto and her farm in Vermont recording Cyclone. "I do that on purpose, because too much time in one place makes you a little batty," she explains. "I find renewed interest in stimulus when I take a little time off and then change location."
Case is equally stimulated by the written word. "I think reading is my main influence when writing, and always has been," she reveals. "I worship books. I think the book that hit me the hardest while making this record was The Living, by Annie Dillard. I read anything, though."
And she'll watch anything, too, evidently, as long as it's a film made by Woody Allen or scored by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Inspired by that pair's film scores, which she's been listening to a lot lately, Case wouldn't mind trying her hand at making music for movies. "I would like to do that eventually," she enthuses, "though I can't imagine ever having free time again!"
With a career on the upswing, leisure time understandably comes at a premium. Even so, Case makes time for her three greyhounds. She's got a soft spot for the pooches, which explains why she's donating a portion of her merch sales at this year's RootsFest to the Colorado Greyhound Adoption organization. "I have a pound mutt who I adore as well," she points out. "Living in Tucson, however, I found the most common adoption needs involved greyhounds, since there was a crappy, irresponsible track operating in town. They were the most needy. Breeding is out of control."