Peter Case: Flying Saucer Blues
by George Graham
(Vanguard Records 79559 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/29/2000)
It has been said that you have to suffer to sing the blues. That may not literally be true, but the life experiences of a performer and especially a songwriter inevitably shape his or her work, with the implication that an interesting life can make for music with more depth. Peter Case is an excellent example. The veteran singer-songwriter has just released a new recording called Flying Saucer Blues, which again reflects the a kind of richness in experience, both musically and lyrically.
California-based Peter Case grew up around Buffalo, NY, and after hearing music from his sister's record collection, decided at an early age that making music was what he wanted to do. He was attracted to some of the famous itinerant folksingers and bluesmen, so at age 15 left home, and at 18, left Buffalo, took a bus to Chicago, and in his words, "Got off the bus, walked around a bit, went into a bar, got drunk and ended up in San Francisco." He tried to eke out a living as a street performer for three years, spending part of the time living in an auto salvage yard, in a bread truck up on blocks. But he began to play some clubs with his energetic brand of folk. He eventually formed a rock band called The Nerves, whose chief claim to fame was their song Hanging on the Telephone which was covered by Blondie and became a hit. By about 1978, Case formed the Plimsouls, who were part of the so-called New Wave "power pop" movement of the day. They soon attracted notice and eventually released a couple of major-label albums, one of which Everywhere at Once did fairly well in both commercial sales and critical notice.
After the Plimsouls broke up, Case embarked on his solo career, getting back to his folk roots, and again gaining critical accolades for his eponymous debut album, and its follow-up The Man with the Blue Guitar. He was married to Victoria Williams at the time and also appeared on her albums.
Despite his success, Case was eventually dropped by Geffen Records but continued to ply his trade, making a record for his fan club. Through a chance meeting, Case was introduced to the people at the venerable folk music label Vanguard Records, which had recorded Joan Baez, Country Joe and the Fish and Ian & Sylvia in the 1960s. He became one of their few new artists, and has been releasing a series of records for them since 1994. Flying Saucer Blues is his sixth overall solo recording, and it's one of his best, a kind of electrified folk album that manages to retain an acoustic quality even as the songs can get energetic. The record features great writing, with compositions that range from complicated love songs to the long story of a crime scene and a police raid. Many of the tracks are imbued with the kind of energy level that recall Case's first paying gig when people were asking the club to turn down that musician, when Case was playing acoustically.
He is joined on this CD by several of the people who appeared on his last recording Full Service No Waiting in 1998. They include Andrew Williams, of the Williams Brothers, who played guitar and produced this album, drummer Sandy Chila, ubiquitous studio multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz on various stringed instruments, plus David Jackson, who plays acoustic bass, and guests including Don Heffington on percussion. The overall sound comes across as rocky folk, more than folky rock, with the acoustic instrumentation providing the foundation for most of the songs.
The album leads off with a song typifying that sound, and also Case's perceptive writing. Paradise, etc. has a kind of back-porch feel while its lyrics are an interesting way of viewing the search for a better place, and how love might take one there. <<>>
One of the highlights of the album is Blue Distance a folky, sometimes vaguely spacey waltz that is a kind of unrequited love song. <<>>
The rockier side of the album comes out on the somewhat quirky arrangement of Cool Drink of Water with its distorted, telephone-like vocal and R&B-style horn section. <<>>
A great song about life's possibilities and not taking advantage of them is Coulda Shoulda Woulda. The honky-tonk sound and Cajun-style fiddle, belie the fairly philosophical lyrics. <<>>
One stylistic surprise on the CD is Lost in Your Eyes, which has a kind of Kurt Weill cabaret sound. It's also one the better sets of lyrics, taking the most common subject for popular songs in an interesting direction. <<>>
Homesickness is addressed in another of the album's most engaging tracks, Black Dirt and Clay. It is not only a ode to the hometown but to the people in that place, many of whom are also likely gone away and perhaps homesick themselves. <<>>
The album's longest track is an interesting narrative called Two Heroes. It tells the story of violence in an urban neighborhood, the arrival of the police and a case of mistaken identity, in which the wrong man gets taken in. The story bears a resemblance to recent news items about police attacking innocent people of color. Case's story, though, has a happy ending, while the band rocks away. <<>>
The albums ends with This Could Be the One, a song in the old-time style, including the simple melody line and the lyrics that end in a double murder caused by jealousy. <<>>
Peter Case's new album Flying Saucer Blues, is another worthy recording from a singer-songwriter who has made a lot of excellent music over his over 20-year recording career that goes back to the New Wave band the Plimsouls and runs through various stops along the continuum between folk and rock. He creates music that is honest and direct in sound, with all-American influences from bluegrass to blues to country and rock, in generally upbeat arrangements that have acoustic guitar at their center. The playing by all is first-rate, and Case again creates some intelligent, worthwhile compositions that run from love-songs to narratives. Some of Case's previous songs have been recorded by other artists, and there are several new pieces on this CD that could easily be covered by others.
On the other hand, from a sonic standpoint, we'll give this CD about a "B," and that's being generous. Apparently with an aim to make this more of a rock album than folk, in sound, the CD was pumped with audio compression to make it sound loud. But that flattened the sound of the acoustic instrumentation and gave the CD too constantly loud a sound that is also a little thin. The acoustic instruments, especially the bass, also lack some warmth and clarity. But compared to many of the CDs on the commercial pop scene, it's not a bad-sounding record, technically.
Peter Case has had an interesting career, with its share of ups and downs. That depth of experience is reflected in his new release Flying Saucer Blues, and makes it an album that is both appealing and one with staying power.
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