Setting aside the new wavey rock approach of his former bands (the Nerves and the Plimsouls, which returned for a spell in the ’90s), Buffalo-born singer/songwriter Peter Case stepped into the role of literate troubadour in the mid-’80s; baggy suit, fedora and all. Downplaying the Plimsouls’ frantic guitar jangle in favor of lean, diverse arrangements, Case and co-producers T-Bone Burnett and Mitchell Froom focus squarely on the material (some of it co-written by Burnett) and Case’s soul-on-fire vocals. The barbed Americana of Case’s best songs — “I Shook His Hand,” “Steel Strings” (later recorded by Marshall Crenshaw), “Old Blue Car” — points to greatness around the corner. However, other tunes (the contrived “Small Town Spree,” arranged by Van Dyke Parks, the sub-Mellencamp “Horse & Crow”) demonstrate the need for a good editor. Peter Case closes with a good cover of the Pogues’ “Pair of Brown Eyes,” with Roger McGuinn on guitar.
The Man With the Blue Postmodern Fragmented Neo- Traditionalist Guitar fulfills much of the debut’s promise. The songwriting is more fluent and self-assured. So is his singing; with contributions from David Lindley, Jim Keltner and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, the musical settings are more varied. Case delivers some startlingly precise character studies (“Poor Old Tom,” “Travellin’ Light”), stark emotional dramas (“Put Down the Gun,” “Two Angels”) and sharply observed sense-of-place vignettes (“This Town’s a Riot,” “Entella Hotel”). Perhaps most notable, though, is the born-again artist’s new-found deftness at bridging spiritual and secular concerns, which he does effectively on “Hidden Love.”
Case got back to rocking on Six-Pack of Love, a gritty pop record on which he plays a lot of piano, displays a John Lennon-ish voice and circles around the threat of romance as warily as an alley cat coming across a dead body. Co-producing with Froom and co-writing with such offbeat elders as John Prine, Billy Swan and Tonio K, Case extricates himself and his beat-up feelings from the frustration of “Vanishing Act” and the threat of “Never Comin’ Home” to find the dubious optimism of “Why Don’t We Give It a Go?” (“Let’s light it up and see if it blows”) and the defiant willfulness of “It Don’t Matter What People Say.” Nicely balanced between articulate expression and evocative emotionalism, the energetic album paints Case into a corner (he doesn’t seem to have given much thought to what would happen if it does blow), letting him writhe happily while pondering the romantic apocalypse.
Dropping out of the major-label world, Case picked up his acoustic guitar and harmonica and slung out Sings Like Hell, a stark and stirring album of blues oldies he wears like a cracked pair of old shoes. Getting only minor assists from producer Marvin Etzioni on mandolin and several other musicians (but playing his own barrelhouse piano on “Down in the Alley” and “Well Run Dry”), Case sheds his modern rock’n’roll baggage, drops his defenses and lets it howl, finding himself in the strength of strings. Digging deep and passionate one-take burrows into the fertile mud of folksongs like “Rovin’ Gambler,” “Matchbox Blues,” “Rose Conolly” and “Lakes of Ponchartrain,” Case repeats the feat of Dylan’s World Gone Wrong and Good As I Been to You, using old patterns to shape an intensely moving original work. A gem.
Returning to his own compositions with a band and full studio production on the rich and rewarding Torn Again, Case emerges as an itinerant folkie cousin of John Hiatt and Nick Lowe, strumming an old hollow-body and singing working-class stories that drift around the fringes of America. Case’s characters hang out in bars, drink in cars, steal airplanes, run afoul of the law and catch love when they can. “Workin’ for the Enemy,” “Turnin’ Blue” and “Wilderness” sketch out unhappy tales with telling detail; the singer’s own lyrical role, when he has one, is strictly as victim. “Anything that you love will bring you to your knees,” he swears; “I thought I had you but you had me.” More painful than love’s wounds, however, “Baltimore” finds him beaten in the street with a shovel. Although he promises “A Little Wind (Could Blow Me Away)” in a number co-written with Tom Russell, Case sounds a lot sturdier and steadier than that.