The Upshot: An expanded reissue of the erstwhile Plimsouls leader’s 1986 solo debut cements the notion of its songwriting/arranging brilliance—and inherent timelessness.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
In 1986 two albums captured my imagination so thoroughly they still reside in the firmament of all-time faves. One was David + David’s debut Boomtown. The other was ex-Plimsouls leader Peter Case’s self-titled debut.* A combination of record reviews and hearing “Welcome to the Boomtown” and “Steel Strings” on the radio drew me to both like the proverbial moth to the flame. While the former languishes in bargain bins and streaming sites, the latter gets a long-overdue reissue. Does it hold up? Boy howdy, does it ever.
The Upshot: As good as this record sounds, it’s all in service to the songs, and this is among the best set the erstwhile Plimsouls leader ever wrote.
Produced by T Bone Burnett and Mitchell Froom at that distinctive time in the’80s when both men were trying to bring a modern aesthetic to roots rock, Peter Case sounds little like the Americana records that would come in its wake while citing it as an inspiration. Opening cut “Echo Wars” is a good example: a pop melody picked on swirling acoustic guitars and supported by swaying acoustic and electronic percussion lines that, at the time, sounded neither like the bands on the roots rock side of town (Jason & the Scorchers, the Long Ryders, etc.), nor the slicker ‘80s pop hitmakers. The whimsically introspective “More Than Curious” similarly rides a busy percussion groove, augmented by a rubbery bassline. The supremely catchy “Steel Strings” adds a burbling synthesizer riff under the irresistible hooks. Some might argue that these sounds and arrangements date the record – and plenty have – but to my ears they make it a more unique sonic experience that any other LP he’d go on to make.
That’s not to say there isn’t a more straightforward attack on many of the tracks. The guitar/harmonica simplicity of the menacing “Walk in the Woods” and the country blues stompin’ “Icewater” (which finds Case putting words to a tune from Lightnin’ Hopkins) need no extra instrumentation to be effective. “Old Blue Car” also uses the blues as a jumping-off point for a rollicking bopper, while the poppy folk-rocking “Horse and Crow” (featuring John Hiatt, a year away from revitalizing his career with Bring the Family, on harmony vox) is practically a blueprint for (the best of) the Americana movement 15-odd years later. Case even nods to his past life in power pop trailblazers the Plimsouls – the blazing “I Shook His Hand” hails from the last days of that band’s life, and “Satellite Beach” is just a hair’s breadth away from being power pop itself.
As good as this record sounds (and that’s as much due to Case’s near-perfect folk/rock/pop voice, cutting and soulful and winsome all at once, as the production and performances), it’s all in service to the songs, and this is among the best set he ever wrote. Rarely indulging in heart-on-sleeve emotion or bald confession, Case instead creates characters and plucks moments from their lives to celebrate, denigrate or simply inhabit. “I Shook His Hand” covers meeting a major political figure (JFK?), “Three Days Straight” describes the aftermath of a mining disaster, “Small Town Spree” (arranged and conducted by Van Dyke Parks) bares its teeth at a killer seemingly getting away with his crime. “Steel Strings” is the album’s anthem, a tribute to music and Case’s instrument of choice that never becomes sappy or clichéd. Case finishes the album with the Pogues’ masterpiece “A Pair of Brown Eyes” – aided by Roger McGuinn’s 12-string chime, Case burrows so deeply into the song’s soul he handily relieves its creators of it, making it forever his own. Case must agree with the continuing power and relevance of these songs – he still includes many of them in his sets thirty years later.
As is de rigeur for reissues, this one includes several bonus tracks. Stripped down acoustic versions of “Steel Strings” and “I Shook His Hand,” a mix of “Horse and Crow” that removes Hiatt’s vocal and adds clattering percussion and an early version of “More Than Curious” reveal what hardy songs they all are. Even better, there are three previously unreleased songs. The solo acoustic “North Coast Blues” and “Trusted Friend” deserve revival in his repertoire, while the full band pop tune “Toughest Gang in Town,” while perhaps a bit too close to the sound of “Horse and Crow” and “Satellite Beach” for inclusion on the original LP, scans well worth hearing.
Peter Case is one of those albums that, even thirty years on, is rarely out of my listening circulation for long. But this reissue is still a welcome chance to rediscover its brilliance. Indeed, if anything, Peter Case shines even brighter now than it did when it blew my mind the first time around.
DOWNLOAD: “Steel Strings,” “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” “Icewater,” “I Shook His Hand,” “Trusted Friend”
*I mention these two together not only for their impact on my future music nerd self, but also because they toured together in support of these records. I didn’t get to see any of those shows, alas.