A Record That’s a Case in Point of a Gifted Songwriter at Work
Peter Case is hardly a household name, but he has had an indelible impact on popular music during a career that has spanned roughly 35 years. In 1976, he formed a band in San Francisco called the Nerves, who recorded a little ditty called “Hanging On The Telephone”. You’ve probably heard that song, even if you’re unfamiliar with the band, considering Blondie covered it on their landmark 1978 New Wave album Parallel Lines. From there, Case was a member of the Plimsouls, who found success with a song called “A Million Miles Away”. That song wound its way onto the soundtrack for the early Nicolas Cage film Valley Girl. Not only that, but the Goo Goo Dolls wound up doing a version of the track. So Case has been all over the map in terms of having a significant underground cultural influence, and from the mid-‘80s on, he’s had a journeyman career as a solo artist, first recording for Geffen Records, then working his way onto various indie labels. It has been a long and storied career for Case.
The Case Files is not a new Peter Case album per se, but rather an odds and sods collection of demos, outtakes, one live shot and other rarities recorded between 1985 and 2010. Some of the songs are in band arrangements with various session players, and others are just Case and an acoustic guitar. Covers are additionally well represented, as the album contains gems from the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Alejandro Escovedo. What’s more, the blues can be found here in large quantities as we have songs such as a new arrangement of the traditional “Milkcow Blues”, a cover of Dylan’s “Black Crow Blues” and “Round Trip Stranger Blues” (the latter of which Case notes in his liner notes accompanying the disc isn’t really a blues track, as it is more of a country rocker, but let’s just pretend it’s blues for the sake of argument).
While this is an outtakes record, the individual songs don’t congeal into something that feels like an actual album, which is a traditional failing of these sorts of collections. However, the recording quality is generally pretty crisp and clean, save for the live-recorded “Milkcow Blues”, which is a little on the muddy side. Considering these songs came from tapes found in closets, boxes, garages, attics and suitcases, it is a remarkably sonically consistent snapshot of an artist who is a bit of an undiscovered treasure in American rock. Given the span that these songs were recorded in, The Case Files is an astute, well-rounded record of different styles that, even though the album is presented out of chronological order, showcases the growth and maturation of Case as a singer and songwriter. The earlier material is full of youthful yearning and occasional power pop nuggets, while the 2000’s material shows Case aging gracefully into a much more grizzled and weathered voice with a folksy swagger to his material. A lot of the material on The Case Files has a loose and off-the-cuff feel, though it never devolves into the sloppy and unprofessional.
Yet, the main flaw of The Case Files is hardly the performances (which you might think is a given, considering this is a disc full of throwaways). Instead, it’s that some of the songs are of a political nature and are well past their best-before date. For instance, “Let’s Turn This Thing Around”, which was recorded in early 2006, is an indictment of the presidency of George W. Bush with lyrics like “When the next election comes and goes /Before it’s stolen by a nose/America’s been growing strange/We, the people, want a change”. Hardly the thing that’s now necessary in the Obama administration, unless you’re a member of the Tea Party and are looking for a rallying song to shake things up. The song also comes with all sorts of misplaced sound effects like a truck backing up and beeping, a rooster crowing and the sound of crowds applauding and chanting in the background which stuffs the song with way too much busyness.
The sentiment for political change is also reflected in “Ballad of the Minimum Wage” from 2005 which even cribs not only the refrain from “Let’s Turn This Thing Around”, but part of the above quoted lyrics from said track, which makes The Case Files unnecessarily repetitious. While it’s nice to see a performer with a bit of a socialist bent pleading for the plight of the working poor on “Ballad of the Minimum Wage”, which seems to be a bit of a rarity these days in American music circles, the song is a bit on the trite side with lines such as “That’s why the poor is with us/So they can work and shop at Wal-Mart stores”. Tell me something I didn’t already know.
However, for every failing, there’s two or three songs that more than make up for it. “Anything (Closing Credits)” is a nice stab at Paul Westerbergian indie pop. The cover of Escovedo’s “The End” is a fiery and passionate rocker. The acoustic “Trusted Friend”, which dates from sometime in the mid-1980s, is a searing ballad, as is “Steel Strings No. 1”, which comes from the same period. There’s a wide variety of different genres mined here, from roots-rock to blues to folk, which keeps things interesting. For that reason, The Case Files is more than an apt taster for the neophyte of Case’s music to sink their teeth into, unsure of where in his catalog to dip a toe into the water with. You could do no wrong in picking this up because The Case Files shows that even though this material is essentially stuff that got stashed away and not used, Case’s flotsam and jetsam is still more interesting than a lot of his contemporaries’ output. While it doesn’t reach the storied heights of Case’s work in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it is a solid and dependable collection of songs that should appease fans, both long-time and new. While some of the songs do feel dated, this anthology of Case’s forgotten songs is, at its best of turns, quite tuneful in the best Americana tradition. By looking back in his rear-view mirror with this album, the only question that will remain for followers is where does Case go from here?