When you’re down deep at the bottom of the indie rock well, you miss things. I, for one, get comfortable down there. It’s dark and dank, and I can blissfully ignore entire pop culture and political movements if I don’t feel the need to be bothered. It’s a limited world, but it’s one of my own creation. I feel free to explore the most cached and popular artists of today down to the very millimeter. Their influences are mine to drool over in absolute safety. I’ve spent months at a time fawning over the right bands. The Kinks, Velvet Undergound, Cheap Trick, and Talking Heads have all had their quiet moments with me in the dark of my well. I readily admit to wearing these blinders. I realize that I don’t experience the full spectrum of recorded music, and a songwriter like Peter Case is a good example. Who the hell is this guy? The press packet says that he’s an important American songwriter. Really? Why haven’t I heard of him? He is apparently widely appreciated by an audience who is not me. Evidently before becoming a solo artist he fronted both The Nerves and Plimsouls. Unfortunately, those two facts don’t help me out at all. But I’m not afraid to show my ignorance here. In fact, I’m sure that many readers of this publication are equally as ignorant about the shadowy details surrounding Peter Case’s recording career. Let us get down to education rather than repudiation, shall we?
In an effort to help facilitate our learning, Vanguard Records has conveniently compiled Who’s Gonna Go Your Crooked Mile?, an instructive anthology featuring tracks from four releases spanning the years 1994-2004. The album opens with two politically charged new cuts, a live version of the title track from 2004, and then proceeds with 13 tracks culled from the aforementioned decade. Before we get to the newer stuff, I feel like some time should be given to already recorded history. “Blind Luck” is a tale of emotional personification that places Case squarely in the Steve Earle/Lucinda Williams category of songwriters for grown ups. The younger age bracket could find fault with it’s standard adult contemporary country-rock arrangement, but overall Case’s voice is in fine form and the song is a pleasant introduction to someone who is obviously both dedicated and talented. Much harder to find fault with is a gorgeous track like “Spell of Wheels”. Case sounds gruff and honest over flat picked guitar and Peter Gabriel-esque floating space bongos. The melody is haunting and weary, yet somehow hopeful, resulting in a truly memorable tale of small-time criminals. The same is true of the similarly plaintive “On the Way Downtown”. The opening lines are, frankly, as good as songwriting gets: “How many times have I washed my face / Combed my hair and left this place / Felt the shiver in my chest when I hit the door / The promise of something here worth living for?”
My major complaint with Case’s material, and the singer/songwriter genre in general, is typified by a track like “Two Heroes”. The storytelling and songwriting are strong, but the New Orleans country skronk and harmonica wail lack the power of the flat picked numbers. This track is obviously an attempt to have a bit of fun, spin a yarn and get the folks a-dancin’, but it doesn’t work for me. Unfortunately, the album fluctuates between less satisfying “rockers” like “Something’s Coming”, “If You Gotta Shine a Light”, and the almost intolerable “Coulda Shoulda Woulda”; and the more depressingly beautiful numbers like “Blue Distance”, the grateful “I Hear Your Voice”, and the album’s closer, “Gone”. But, thankfully, there is enough power in the live version of the title track to make the whole experience worthwhile. The faithfulness of “Who’s Gonna Go Your Crooked Mile” is unmistakable, and Case’s fiery performance leaves the rest of the album looking up in awe. The fact that the track was recorded in 2004 makes it clear that after almost 30 years in the business, Peter Case has a lot left to say.