[21 April 2010]
When Peter Wolf was the jive-talkin’, diddy-boppin’ frontman for the J. Geils Band, he presided over one of the greatest rock and roll house parties on the planet. Throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the band’s live shows were sweaty, legendary, and faces were blown out every night. Wolf was the master of ceremonies, quick-witted, hyper-cool, and a ferocious showman who grabbed audiences by their collective jugular and wrung them dry.
The party ended in 1983 and Wolf long ago sauntered away from the shadow cast by his previous band. The first of his seven solo albums was released in 1984. He has been out of the J. Geils Band much longer than he was in it. His body of solo work started with a few odd missteps. The first three releases were the work of a man who seemed more interested in grabbing onto a contemporary vibe than actually following his muse.
Then came Long Line in 1996. It was the first move toward a throw-back R&B sound that led to two underappreciated masterpieces: Fool’s Parade (1998) and Sleepless (2002). Both received lavish praise from critics and featured the kind of timeless rhythm and blues, rock and country that has long been Wolf’s favored musical canvas. Both pretty much flopped.
After a long layoff, as he tried to find his creative footing after the commercial malaise of Sleepless, he’s back with Midnight Souvenirs, a perfect bookend to the story of lost love, late-night ruminations, and the healing power of music that has long been his central message.
Call them nocturnal transmissions, because the notorious night owl sets the vast majority of these songs after the sun has long gone down, the bars are closed, and the one you love is so far away she (or he) ain’t never coming back. It’s you, your thoughts, and a bottle of wine (or whiskey would be fine)...and, of course, Wolf.
On “Midnight Souvenirs,” just as he was with Geils, Wolf becomes the consummate guide through the night’s ramblings. He’s the hyper-cool friend who can rap for hours with equal authority about Lefty Frizzell or Don Covay and remind you how music can salve your wounds or give you a much-needed kick in the ass.
More than on any of his other releases, Wolf’s latest pays serious homage to his love of country music. On Sleepless, the A-list guest artists were Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, but Steve Earle was on there, too. For his new disc, the guests are Shelby Lynne, Neko Case, and Merle Haggard, three artists who skew heavy toward country. Their contributions give Midnight Souvenirs its stylistic ballast.
Kicking off with the hook-heavy “Tragedy”, Wolf and Lynne trade vocals that plant one foot in the soul firmament and the other in country, crafting a catchy tune that cleverly melds the two styles. Case elicits chills when her beautiful, expressive voice transforms “The Green Fields of Summer” from a slow, fiddle-driven ballad featuring Wolf to what sounds like a long-lost folk classic featuring a lush string arrangement.
Then there’s Haggard. Wolf saves him for the final cut, “It’s Too Late For Me”. The song is a honky-tonk weeper that could’ve been lifted from the radio in 1954. A gentle piano melody propels the song forward, as Wolf and his hero harmonize on a slow-burning country blues. Its central lyric, “the night comes on / I’m all alone / with just my precious memories”, captures the entire vibe of Midnight Souvenirs. The song is a powerful, lingering closer.
That is to no way indicate that this album is a maudlin bummer; far from it. Wolf blasts through Geils-like rock, dance-floor funk – “I Don’t Wanna Know” and “Watch Her Move” (the latter is a sister thematically to the late-era Geils tune “Flamethrower”) – and good time-y soul like “Everything I Do (Gonna Be Funky)” and the hilarious “Overnight Lows”, which features a prototypical Wolf rap on a tune that could have been recorded by an alternate-universe Marvin Gaye.
Midnight Souvenirs is highlighted by pristine production. Like its two predecessors, the disc features a warm, deep sound with sophisticated arrangements that layer on background vocals, strings, horns, and meticulous songwriting while never sounding busy or labored. My only quibble with the album is a result of Wolf’s infatuation with a wide swath of late 20th century musical styles, from country to blues and pop to doo-wop. The sequencing of the music gets a bit schizophrenic at a couple of points, most notably when two strong countryish tunes, “Always Asking For You” and “Then It Leave Us All Behind”, give way to a pair of soul workouts. The result is jarring and gives the disc a little bit of a bolted-together feel instead of feeling seamless. That’s nitpicking, though. Wolf gets a pass for being too eclectic, and Midnight Souvenirs deserves to be heard, preferably long after midnight.