Neko Case wasn't made for these times, but if it's any consolation to her, she probably wouldn't have fit in well in any era. Not quite Patsy Cline's idea of country, not even remotely indie-rock, she's a soul singer without the R&B, a classic chanteuse too contemporary in her attitudes to run with the supper-club crowd. But now that her songwriting is starting to catch up with her deservedly gushed-over voice, she needn't worry — with 2006's extraordinary Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and this spring's Middle Cyclone, she's mapping out her own territory, waiting for her peers to catch up.
As with her last album, Middle Cyclone isn't a song-suite exactly, but the secret to its graceful flow is Case's ability to segue from absolute stunners to lovely palette-cleansing song fragments that serve as thematic and atmospheric connective tissue. In interviews, she comes across as sardonically self-deprecating but sincere, a tomboy who's quite convincing when she insists that she prefers animals and nature to people. But as opposed to the psych-folk weirdoes murmuring in the thickets about their inconsequential problems, Middle Cyclone is a master class on empathy, going out of its way to understand the plight of tornadoes ("This Tornado Loves You"), killer whales ("People Got a Lotta Nerve") and even abusive partners who've lost their soul mate ("Vengeance Is Sleeping"). Case's love songs are all bad-love songs, but her misfit characters (some of whom may be her) aren't interested in self-pity. Middle Cyclone is about those who can't fit in — and when you stand out from the crowd, you have to expect a certain amount of loneliness.
Neko Case plays Wednesday, July 22, at the Crofoot Ballroom, 1 S. Saginaw St., Pontiac; 248-858-9333. With Jason Lytle.
Tim Grierson writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.