Peter Case, The Case Files

Peter Case, The Case Files

When I first listened through The Case Files, the latest release from power-pop/Americana icon Peter Case, I did it blind, just listening to it without reading anything about it beforehand. And that first spin left me somewhat confused. The songs seemed scattered, at least at first, hopping nimbly from the strange, kitchen-sink-sounding roots-rock of “Let’s Turn This Thing Around” to the gentleness of “Anything (Closing Credits)” to the rumbling “Milkcow Blues”…and hey, is that the Rolling Stones’ “Good Times, Bad Times”? What the hell?

It turns out that there’s a reason for my confusion, namely that Files isn’t a “real” album, per se, but rather a collection of B-sides and outtakes culled from various points throughout the last 25 years of Case’s solo career as a roots-rock/Americana artist. That somewhat explains the out-of-time outrage coming from former Yippie Case on “Let’s Turn This Thing Around,” and the seemingly random inclusion of the live “Milkcow Blues,” not to mention covers of the aforementioned Stones song, Bob Dylan’s “Black Crow Blues,” and “The End,” by Texas’s own Alejandro Escovedo.

For all that scattered-ness, though, by about halfway through the album, I’m finding that I no longer mind — somehow, against all odds, these songs picked from various eras and recording sessions do work together, fit together like their own unique beast. Which is an impressive feat, honestly.

It’s Case himself who holds it all together, obviously. Whether he’s engaging in quasi-Beat protest-poetry on “Ballad of the Minimum Wage” (which makes me think weirdly of King Missile, for reasons I can’t entirely explain) or reinterpreting Escovedo’s song as a fiery, swirling blast of post-’60s psych-rock, there’s always that rough-edged, desperate-sounding voice, one that veers just westward of fellow roots-rocker/activist Steve Earle in its scratched-up sincerity and intensity.

It helps, too, that Case’s own songs are downright magnificent, songwriting-wise — I’ll freely admit that I’m not real familiar with what he’s been doing since The Plimsouls broke up, having only heard a handful of scattered songs over the years, so I can’t really say whether Files is representative or not, but Jesus Christ, if these are his throwaways… Frankly, they blow most songwriter’s best-polished compositions fully out of the water.

The album starts deceptively low-key with “(Give Me) One More Mile,” a jangly, rootsy track that’s appropriately highway-sounding and reminds me of Springsteen gone Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; just when you think Case is content to sit back and ramble on, though, he hits the break and captures the entirety of the road life in those ringing chords.

Then there’s the all-over-the-place “Let’s Turn This Thing Around,” which incorporates samples of crowds chanting, people coughing, computer noises, whistles, and another hundred little sounds with Latin-sounding percussion, sinister bass, and what sounds like some sort of bagpipes (apparently they’re actually synths, and are played by Stan Ridgway). It’s almost distracting, with so much to take in that it’s hard to follow, but there’s a weirdly late-’80s/early-’90s vibe to it that makes it sort of make sense. It’s a shame the song never got released back then (assuming that is when Case wrote it; no idea on that front) — it’s the kind of track I can see making a surprise splash on the radio.

My absolute favorite track on here, though, has to be “Anything,” a gently sweet song that’s jangly and rural in all the right places, drifting through a catchy-as-hell Son Volt-style chorus, with guitars that edge over into Replacements/Bob Mould territory at points, and even jumping into a soul-style break midway through. With this one song, Case has managed to capture everything I love best about rootsy, countrified rock, and the first time I heard it, my jaw very literally fell open; it’s like the guy’s been hanging out inside my brain.

This track, by the by, did see release twice previously, originally on 2006’s Torn Again; the version here, however, comes from the 2007 Camp Burlesque compilation, and it beats the original by a mile, in my estimation. The later version feels fuller and less folky than the Torn Again version; for this rendition of the song, Case puts some muscle behind it, and it works a whole lot better. (As another side note, for a brief second there, I thought sure I’d accidentally put on a Bright Men of Learning album instead of Files…)

Further on, Case hits another high point with “Kokomo Prayer Vigil,” a nimble, fingerpicked acoustic track that sees Case sounding like both Earle and The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle at the same time with its sung-spoken format and bitterly-snarled specificity. You can almost feel Case’s anger and disillusionment bleeding through those lyrics, and the almost Richard Thompson-esque guitars thrum and drive the song onward like a train speeding along in the night.

After that there’s a demo version of “Steel Strings,” from Case’s self-titled 1986 album, which I think improves a hell of a lot on the Afrobeat-tinged version that made it onto the release back then. Where that track’s all polish and smiles, this version comes off melancholy and wistful, with minimalist, echoed handclaps the only percussion and Case’s guitar ringing out like Billy Bragg’s circa Talking with the Taxman About Poetry. The end result is utterly beautiful and downcast, but still hopeful.

Near to the end, there’s also “Trusted Friend,” which turns its very title on its head as a seeming indictment of betrayal and pairs somber, quietly deliberate guitars with Case’s raw-throated bellow; it’s a searing, heart-cut-open kind of song, one that works painfully well. And at the very finish, Case closes out with “Round Trip Stranger Blues,” a half-distorted country tune that acts like a bookend with opener “One More Mile,” delivering the message that no matter how many times he goes ’round and ’round, riding the roads and rails and whatever else, Case still doesn’t have it all figured out.

With The Case Files as proof, however, I’d have to beg to differ. Like I said before, if these are what the guy considers throwaways, songs not good enough to make the cut… Well, from where I’m sitting, they’re pretty damn amazing.

[Peter Case is playing 6/28/11 at Cactus Music (5PM) and at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck, along with Steve Poltz.]
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Tuesday, June 28th, 2011. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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