A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
August 10, 2007
Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John not only is Peter Case’s first album of new material in five years, it’s his strongest work in a lot more years than that.
This album — which is almost all acoustic and is named for the late Tennessee bluesman John Estes — harks back in spirit to Case’s early solo albums. You hear echoes of The Man With the Blue Post Modern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar (which on most days I think is his greatest album) and even Sings Like Hell, his early ’90s collection of old folk songs and blues. Case sounds fresh and confident. He’s got a lot to say and feels an urgency to tell these stories.
Sleepy John is a pleasure from the first song, the Brit-folky “Every 24 Hours,” a duet with Richard Thompson, who backs him on acoustic guitar and vocals. Producer Ian Brennan fortunately doesn’t let Case get upstaged by his guest stars (who include Merle Haggard’s steel guitarist Norm Hamlet on the final song, “That Soul Twist”).
The best way to listen to Sleepy John is while reading his recently published As Far As You Can Get Without a Passport, the first installment of Case’s autobiography, which deals with his busking days on the streets of San Francisco in the mid-’70s. Throughout his career Case has recalled and mythologized this cheap hotel/cheaper wine period of his life in his songs, but somehow it never sounds old.
On “The Open Road Song” he sings of his deep-rooted romance with the ramblin’ life. As a child with his father he spies a ragged man on the street. “Son, that man’s a bum,” his dad says. But the boy is fascinated. “I looked again and saw the rapt expression/’neath the floppy hat he tipped back with his thumb/The aura of a world’s ragtime adventure/I said ‘When I grow up I want to be a bum.’”
And yet that romantic notion of life on the road doesn’t cloud his sense of reality. Case, with Carlos Guitarlos harmonizing on the chorus, takes an unflinching view of the other side of bumhood on “Underneath the Stars,” describing the death of a homeless woman in a park near his home.
Although Case has never been known as a topical songwriter, one of the finest songs on this album is ripped from recent headlines. “Million Dollars Bail” is obviously based on Phil Spector’s murder trial. The singer is angry about the special justice for the rich and famous that the Spector case represents. “Every one is talking ’bout the night he spent in jail/Today he’s free out walking on a million dollars bail.”
Wisely, Case doesn’t dwell on the details of the case. He uses it as a springboard to explore deeper truths. In fact, he turns to the hope of some kind of old-fashioned divine justice. “Eternity is longer than one night inside a box/And if you’re heading toward the jailhouse, now’s the time to pick the locks/ But there’s a sentence passed on every soul, someday we all must die/ And the question’s not who pulled the switch, it’s how you lived and why.”
It’s good to know that troubadours as vital as Case are still among us.
* Noble Creatures by The Gourds. Austin, Texas’, finest are still sounding mighty fine. On this album the band seems as if it’s trying to expand its happy go-lucky funky back-roads sound. There’s a horn section on the opening song, “How Will You Shine,” giving it an almost poppy feeling.
Of course the lyrics don’t sound like any Top-10 teen tune: “Jammin’ on the old cartoons with the swagger of the immune/Sleeping like a fat raccoon, diabetic on a honeymoon.”
On the next tune, “Kicks in the Sun,” a roller-rinky organ (played by accordion man Claude Bernard) dominates, aiming toward the Blood of the Ram garage-rock vibe the band took a couple of albums ago.
But there’s no mistaking this for anything but a Gourds album. “Red Letter Day” is solid roadhouse honky-tonk, with a couple of unexpected chord changes thrown in, while the banjo-driven “Flavor on the Tongue” showcases the group’s fondness for bluegrass.
“Cranky Mulatto,” which has been part of the band’s stage repertoire for years, is a good-time Cajun stomp with swampy apocalyptic lyrics like “Heaven’s radio makes a sound like a brown banjo/Opossum sittin’ in the limbs/Devil’s gonna wait for him.” Likewise the rocking “All in the Pack” is firmly rooted in the bayou.
And speaking of swampy, the song, “Spivey” is such pure Creedence/Tony Joe White swamp rock you might suspect it’s being played by Polk Salad Annie’s no-count brothers.
The band also knows how to sound sweet, soulful, and downright purdy. “Steeple Full of Swallows” (another road-tested tune) and “Promenade” are slow and emotional ballads.
Unfortunately, nothing on this album reaches the sublime level of Gourds’ tunes like “Burn the Honeysuckle”) from their last album Heavy Ornamentals) or “Ants on the Melon,” (probably my favorite Gourds song of all time.) Still it’s a Gourds record, and that’s always enough to brighten a day.
* Catch Me a Possum by The Watzloves. This is a crazed, hopped-up Euro version of country and Cajun music led by German singer, accordion player, and circus-poster artist Silky Toss (aka Silky Watzlove, aka Silke Thoss) and her boyfriend, Louisiana expatriate DM Bob, who plays drums, guitar, and sax. According to the album cover, “In real life she’s a badass truck driver and owns a fish fry and a hot-dog stand.” Lurking in the background is slide guitarist/trombonist Jakobus. It might not be “authentic,” but by the ghost of Clifton Chenier, it works!
It’s hard to find any country rock lately halfway as infectious as “Always the Same,” a duet with Silky and Bob. Only a European could get away with singing “Let’s go out tonight and get something to bite.”
NOTE: In the print version of this I said DM Bob was Silky's husband. I just doublechecked and the Voodoo Rhythm site says he's her boyfriend.
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