Case Studies

Bob Dylan in reverse: Peter Case goes acoustic.Photo: courtesy of Vanguard Recording

Someone once joked that the best way to describe Peter Case would be as “Bob Dylan in reverse.” Case first got noticed on the front lines of the 1976-77 punk/new-wave wars as a member of the Nerves, a San Francisco trio best remembered for its Blondie-covered club hit “Hanging on the Telephone.” Relocating to L.A. in 1978, he formed the Plimsouls, who flirted with national success in the early eighties and whose high-water mark, the frenetic, heart-in-mouth 1982 rave-up “A Million Miles Away,” symbolized everything good about power pop that, say, “My Sharona” didn’t. The Plimsouls disbanded in 1984, and when Case re-emerged as a solo performer two years later, it was as if he had been inhabited by another life-form – and not just because, in the interim, he’d become a born-again Christian. He’d found a new musical religion, too: folk.

Trading his electric guitar for an acoustic, Case began finger-picking his way back through time, writing idiomatic ballads about ramblers and rogues and determinedly regressing into the guise of the hipster troubadour – The Man With the Blue Post-Modern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar, as the title of a 1989 album proclaimed. When he turned up on folk-steeped Vanguard Records in 1994 – with a collection composed mostly of antiques such as “The Lakes of Ponchartrain” – he seemed to have finally brought it all back home. Trouble was, it was never completely clear what Case’s specific it was, or to what end the voyage.

Until now: After rebooting himself with 1995’s tentative Torn Again, Case, on his new album, Full Service No Waiting (Vanguard), realizes his folk vision quest – most fittingly with a work that is neither neo-, post-, nor fragmented anything. There are, to be sure, echoes of the whole sixties folk-blues aesthetic chiming away here: From Case’s Mississippi John Hurt-meets-the-Reverend Gary Davis guitar-picking and the eternally Woody Guthrie-Dylanesque sound of his harmonica to the fiddles, dobros, jawbones, and harmoniums that swirl around him, the music is firmly traditional. Yet for the first time in Case’s acoustic career, not a note sounds precious. His style is no longer the major point of his music; it’s the appropriate tool of the trade.

Case finds the road rising to meet him as he spins his autobiographical tales of opportunity, loss, hope, and redemption – tales that resonate deeply with both personal insights and universal truths. There’s “See Through Eyes,” a Proustian remembrance of rock-and-roll things past (“We laughed and threw it away / Now what would I do / For another pair of see through eyes”); the lilting, country-tinged “Beautiful Grind,” about the romantic challenges of being married … with children (“I only see you when the lightnin’ strikes”); and “Crooked Mile,” a bluesy reflection on faith with the closest thing here to a religious message (“The mile still runs crooked / The highway’s up above / And the only thing I’ve found that counts in this world is love. / Who’s gonna go your crooked mile?”). On this stunning album, Peter Case makes the leap from romantic admirer of folk traditions to authentic practitioner. Reports that he’s reforming the long-lost Plimsouls seem only natural for this windin’ boy. After an achievement like Full Service No Waiting, he’s younger than yesterday.

Like Peter Case, Jules Shear has had a dizzyingly fitful twenty-plus-year career as a songwriter and performer. The Pittsburgh native debuted in 1976 with L.A. country-rockers the Funky Kings and by the end of the decade was fronting Jules and the Polar Bears, a pop-rock band that sounded (according to one critic) like “Jackson Browne backed by the Kinks.” With a flair for hook-filled melodies and snappy lyrics, the Polar Bears tried (two albums and an EP) but barely made a ripple; stumped as to how to market them, their label simply threw them into the water with a gaggle of unrelated new-wave bands and forgot about them. Soon the disillusioned Shear had moved to New York to try his luck as a solo performer.

What Shear discovered when he began releasing fine albums like 1983’s Watch Dog and 1985’s The Eternal Return was that while not many people were paying attention to him, those who did tended to be other performers searching for quality pop material, which he had by the cartful: for instance, “All Through the Night,” a top-five hit for Cyndi Lauper in 1984, and “If She Knew What She Wants,” which the Bangles charted with in 1986. Not surprisingly, Shear has since spent his time writing prolifically and recording sporadically – and oh, yes, he helped create, and was the original host of, a little thing on MTV called Unplugged.

Between Us (High Street) is an attempt to bring Shear long-overdue recognition, showcasing him in a collection of duets (hence the title) with some fourteen singers. The roster, mostly female, is impressive – Paula Cole, Rosanne Cash, Carole King, Suzzy Roche, and Margo Timmins, as well as fellow undervalued singer-songwriters Ron Sexsmith and Freedy Johnston – and so are many of the individual vocal performances. The achingly beautiful “The Last in Love” (which Cole takes through the roof) should get to even the most unsentimental listener, and the same goes for “Windows and Walls,” a torchy ballad featuring up-and-comer Patty Griffin. Still, while the range of partners and song types is satisfyingly broad, that can’t really be said of the music. Centered on Shear’s spare acoustic guitar, the arrangements are demo-minimal, resulting in a sameness that diminishes the strength of the material. While it’s great to hear Carole King soaring through the girl-groupy “How Many Times,” one can’t help imagining it with a full Spectorian treatment; and the Rosanne Cash duet, “Who’s Dreaming Who,” could have used a little more ranch dressing before being placed on the table. Of course, that would have made Between Us a grandiose affair, and quibbles and bits aside, it’s a fittingly gentle showcase for a gentle-souled songwriter’s songwriter.

Tommy Keene has been knock-knock-knocking on power pop’s door since the early eighties with the kind of loud and winsome guitar rock that invariably attracts raves from critics ever-nostalgic for the good old Big Star days (believe me, they weren’t all that good) but few actual paying customers (and that’s why). As evidenced by his latest, Isolation Party (Matador), the Washington, D.C.-bred, L.A.-based Keene’s approach hasn’t changed much since such noble but overlooked efforts as 1984’s Places That Are Gone and Back Again. He’s still referencing David Bowie glitter riffs (the “Rebel Rebel”-like “Get Out From Under You”), playing Boston-worthy twin guitar leads (“Battle Lines”), and generally tilting at the same windmills of the mind as ever (“Tuesday Morning,” which quotes “Good Vibrations”). Then again, anyone who in 1998 can stir synapses to jump from Squeeze to the Korgis to the Gin Blossoms in under five minutes, as Keene does on “Take Me Back,” deserves to get his scuffed-up Beatle boot in that aforementioned door.

Case Studies