Photo credit: Dennis Kleiman
There’s nothing better than a summer night. Nothing. The best time of day, the best time of year. On a summer night, life moves at just the right pace – the pace of baseball on the radio, where time is measured not by a clock but by the progress of events themselves. Difficult conversations become philosophical in the dark of a summer night. If you’ve been given the gift of reverie, a summer night is the perfect time to sit alone, outside, let your thoughts waft up like the heat off your grill, lingering or drifting off as you please.
A summer night is universal. Where I live, it’s especially precious – survive a Chicago winter and you’ll treasure every one of those nights when work is done and the kids are in bed and there’s still a few hours to sit outside with a drink. And even where summer is year-round – in Florida and Arizona and other sweltering places where retirees go to decompose – the night brings relief, provides a few tolerable moments, lets you breathe.
Out on the high plains where I grew up, the wind was our nemesis, roaring from the frigid north all winter then turning around to torment us from the blast-furnace south through summer. But when night fell, even the wind could relax. It would settle down to a breeze, letting the dust fall to earth and letting us sit outside in peace. In the city, evenings are less peaceful – El trains clatter by, sirens wail, air-conditioners hum. On a summer night there’s a general quiet that makes those noises seem isolated, intermittent, and more tolerable.
So when I say that Neko Case’s ‘Middle Cyclone’ is like a summer night, you’ll know I’m paying her my highest compliment. The record sounds like a summer night, with its echos and reverb and the hint of wind chimes and nocturnal creatures chirping in the background. And it feels like a summer night (note: the very fact that it has a feel makes it an achievement), thanks to Neko’s songwriting, which eschews the verse-chorus-verse approach to instead let the lyrics go where they will, the better to unwind her noirish parables and shrouded confessionals. Listening to ‘Middle Cyclone’ is like having a free-flowing conversation with someone really interesting — someone who can tell a riveting story, even if you’re not sure what it’s about.
And lest you think I cooked up this whole summer-night theme just so I could wax on about it, Neko makes it explicit. Let this be a warning says the magpie to the morning: ‘Don’t let this fading summer pass you by,’ she sings in the gorgeous ‘Magpie to the Morning.’ And at the end of the record she tacked on thirty-plus minutes of nature sounds from outside the Vermont barn where ‘Middle Cyclone’ was recorded. Frogs, crickets, cicadas – whatever, all making their rhythmic music. It’s beautiful: the sound of a summer night.
‘Middle Cyclone’ is not a perfect record, but I’d say at least nine of the 14 songs (not counting the half-hour chirping) are really great. I wouldn’t be surprised if several of the other five grew on me – great albums always reveal themselves over time. And I plan to give ‘Middle Cyclone’ time. There’s a whole summer ahead.