Friday, November 22, 2002

The Case on Case

by Wayne Robins

Peter Case
has the gift: insightful songwriter, shrewd interpreter, outstanding guitar player, excellent taste and a veterans consistency. So there's something disturbing about his notes to "Beeline," his most recent album, this line in particular:

"I was living on the couch in a room over Pico Boulevard."

As the opening line of a Raymond Chandler short story, it has possibilities. But after 30 years of making music, it sounds a little grim. So I listened to "Beeline" with an agenda: To figure out why a guy with this talent is still on the fringe.

Maybe I'm overreacting. It may be my preconception that anyone who spends his entire life in the L.A. music business, starting with the Nerves in 1970's and the Plimsouls circa 1980, seeks gratification through the charts. (Case, 48, was born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y.). I know nothing about his personal life: Don't know whether Case is tormented by unusual demons or a magnificently well-adjusted zen master of L.A. bohemianism. Maybe he "moved into a place with three was small, like living in a submarine," with "no furniture..." because he's got the gift of keeping his life simple. And the room's resonance made his voice and guitar sound good, and out came these songs, written after a divorce and the death of his father. Case's son Joshua plays guitar.

Case's last two albums were "Flying Saucer Blues"(2000) and the compilation "Avalon Blues: A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt" (2001), on Vanguard Records
. "Beeline" brings together the best parts of each. It's kind of Delta psychedelia through an L.A. filter. He writes in the notes that for a while, he couldn't remember his dreams. In these songs, he seems to have been dreaming about the Beatles' "Revolver" album. "If You Got A Light to Shine" may be the most overlooked song of hope written in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001: He wrote it the following weekend. "Evening Raga" seems made to segue into Oasis' "Hindu Times" and George Harrison's "Within You Without You," but Case is wily: The musical antecedent is Blind Willie McTell, loading up in a tin-roofed jukejoint during a heavy rain.

Anachronistically, Case divides the ten songs in half, labeling them as "Side one" and "Side two," signifying the era of the turntable rather than the CD player. Side one's "I Hear Your Voice" is a beautiful pop ballad suitable for any era. "Gone," in its picking style and subtly gruff vocal, sounds like a tribute to the late folk singer Dave Van Ronk. (The album is dedicated to Harrison and Van Ronk, as well as Case's late father).

There is one cover, Townes Van Zandt's "Ain't Leavin' Your Love," done as a kind of garage folk-rock tune. "It's Cold Inside" is a zombie blues, Case's harmonica coming through his chest like a pneumonia wheeze. And "First Light," to end the album, has more "Revolver"-esque beauty, the sitar-and-tabla-like sound likely coming from producer Andrew Williams' harmonium and Warren Klein's tamboura. You imagine this live as a twenty-minute jam, Quicksilver Messenger Service cutting loose at the Avalon Ballroom circa 1966.

So where does that leave us? With another Peter Case album that's engaging musically, intellectually, and emotionally, but finds him still short that one song that would define him, his time and his place. He may yet have it in him.
(c) 2002, Wayne Robins. All rights reserved. e-mail

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