She's been around since the mid-1990s, but Neko Case's acclaim has often fallen by the wayside in favour of more publicised contemporaries like Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams. Yet, to describe both musicians as her contemporaries is misleading, too. Although the Virginia-born singer-songwriter has always had one foot firmly steeped in the alt-country mire, her background is about as jumbled as they come; an erstwhile member of power-poppers The New Pornographers who paid her dues in punk bands as a teenager, the 38-year old has settled into her own boundary-straddling niche on her more recent albums.
Her last record, 2006's 'Fox Confessor Brings the Flood', was one of her most successful yet, but 'Middle Cyclone', her sixth studio outing, is as potent a force of nature as its title implies. With guest appearances by M. Ward, The Band's Garth Hudson and members of Calexico and Giant Sand (amongst others), it's not hard to imagine this album's tone: it's an immediately likeable assortment of subtle, natural aromas, all tied together by Case's gorgeously forceful vocals and harmonies.
Upbeat, full-sounding acoustic songs ('This Tornado Loves You') position themselves alongside gentle, offbeat dirt-track rock waltzes ('Fever') and subtle pop-meets-country trundles ('Polar Nettles'), Case's stark lyrical imagery often adding a dose of tension and atmosphere. Her cover of Sparks's 'Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth' is particularly likeable, as is Harry Nilsson's 'Don't Forget Me', recorded by a 'piano orchestra' in an echo-enhancing barn. She might never hit the mainstream - of her own volition, undoubtedly - but albums like this are gems worth seeking out.