Peter Case: Peter Case (1986)

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Peter Case : Walk in the Woods
Peter Case: Peter Case (1986)

For six months after its release, at least three times a week, I would play this album. Night after night.

I had been given a cassette tape which I had in the kitchen and while making dinner for my kids, only stopping to hear Alistair Cooke's Letter From America on the radio, Peter Case would be on permanant repeat.

One night one of my boys came in and stood listening, for what would not have been the first time, and said, "Dad, whose hand did he shake?"

The question was about the song I Shook His Hand ("too young not to understand, I was proud to say I shook his hand") and my answer was probably, as I juggled meatloaf and salad and a joint, along the lines of  "I don't know, that's why I keep listening to it. I'm still trying to figure it out".

The urgent lyrics seemed to tumble over themselves so only fragments would appear from my fuzzy tape: for a while I thought of JFK or his assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, perhaps John Lennon, perhaps Huey Long or a baseball star. .  ? None fit but all could.

I thought there was something about a prison van (there isn't) but on closer analysis in later years it is about a tent-show preacher (perhaps?): "His words were like lightning in the summer air, his eyes were wild with truth he told, holding back the rain while the thunder rolled . . ." 

Case's self-titled debut album -- cleanly recorded with an immediacy by T Bone Burnett -- remains a record that is oblique, equivocal and allusive.

At its most obvious -- Small Town Spree about a gunman on the run, with a dark string arrangement by Van Dyke Parks -- there are narratives of the kind that would become common in, a genre not then invented.

But it is those other songs like Echo Wars ("echo wars never die, they fight and multiply"), Steel Strings and More Than Curious where you pour your own meaning into the songs.

There is something spare yet cinematic about this music, at times it suggests John Ford taken down to those mysterious bayou landscapes of the South (the brooding More Than Curious, co-produced by Mitchell Froom, which weaves to a fade).

Walk in the Woods is about a young couple who mysteriously go missing with a twist ("You never heard such theories but none of 'em could be proved") and anticipated the obsession with murder ballads.

This is a world of cemeteries, willow trees, railroad tracks, preachers at tent shows, a hold-up at a liquor store, old cars and backroads. 

On Old Blue Car he honks up the blues harmonica and the album concludes, improbably, with a terrific version of the Pogues' Pair of Brown Eyes. 

It would be a couple of years before I learned Case had been in the Plimsouls but the way he turned that punk-pop energy into acoustic folk-rock music was his gift. There are songs on this debut which could certainly be re-imagined with a rock band, but it is their up-close tautnesss which drags you in.

There are big name players here -- John Hiatt, Jim Keltner, Roger McGuinn who brings guitar chime to Satellite Beach, Gurf Morlix, Victoria Williams -- but all remain firmly in the background.

Their presence was an early indicator of the high regard in which Peter Case was held -- and has been down the decades. In '06 the triple-disc tribute album A Case For Case had his songs recorded by the likes of Hayes Carll, Tom Russell, Dave Alvin, Joe Ely, James McMurtry, Chris Gaffney . . .

His heart attack in '09 saw the big names come out for a fund-raisers. Case's music had touched a lot of people.

In the largely impenetrable liner notes here Case says "these songs are about sin and salvation. Have fun."

More than two decades on from cooking in the kitchen, I still am having fun with this album. In that slightly eerie way which Peter Case allows.   

These Essential Elsewhere pages deliberately point to albums which you might not have thought of, or have even heard . . .

But they might just open a door into a new kind of music, or an artist you didn't know of.

Or someone you may have thought was just plain boring.

But here is the way into a new/interesting/different music . . .

Jump in.

The deep end won't be out of your depth . . . 

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Your Comments

Blair - Sep 6, 2010

This is a great article Graeme. This album had the same effect on me - I remember Time magazine describing him as a "wondrous" singer songwriter after his second solo disc "Blue Guitar" (abbreviated) came out - again well worth checking out. The lyrics,vocals (very like John Lennon) guitar & harmonica playing & overall production made it a favourite of mine for years (the CD came out in mid 90s which I grabbed as well).It made me check out the Plimsouls as well as his earlier band The Nerves (most notable track "Hanging on the Telephone" which Blondie covered.Unfortunately after the Blue guitar album his quality & visibility diminished although I remember Springsteen name checking him for a song called "Beyond the Blues" from the more pop album Six Pack of Love (produced by Mitchell Froom). One small point - the killer guitar on Satellite Beach is none other than Mike Campbell from Tom Petty fame. Roger McGuinn adds the chimimg 12 string to the Pogues cover. Cheers

Earl B - Sep 6, 2010

I bought Peter Case's debut (on vinyl) partly because I liked the look of the album cover ... one of those instances where it turns out to be an excellent choice!

The song of his (co-written with John Prine I think) that always makes me wonder "what's he singing about?" is "Wonderful 99" off Six-Pack of Love. But my favourite of his is "Entella Hotel" off ... Blue Guitar ... one of those songs where every lyric and every piece of instrumentation falls into place exactly where it should.

Sludgie - Sep 11, 2010

Nice review and article. I picked up the album mainly as I was on a T Bone kick at the time and loved it. Then bought Blue Guitar and that is the one I know go back to more often. I also backtracked to the Plimsouls and the Nerves and the former in particular became a favourite. Deserving similar appreciation to Big Star. Still pick up new Case stuff but really now from Bargain Bin trawling. The new one, post heart attack, is supposed to be good.

As a footnote the reason Victoria Williams was helping out on the album was because at the time she was Mrs Case. And it was this connection that made me seek out her stuff. Connections Connections Connections.........

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