Peter Case : Sings Like Hell

Peter Case Sings Like Hell album cover jpg

Peter Case’s new album will be released later this year, but as he’s in his early 60’s now, he’s got quite a long career to look back on to, although unfortunately he’s not quite blessed with the amount of success he definitely deserves. Starting his career in earnest in the mid-1970’s in San Francisco, he played with seminal Power Pop heroes The Nerves and The Plimsouls in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Most interesting for me however, was the solo career which he started with his self-titled album in 1986 and 1989’s The Man With The Post-Modern Fragmented Neo-Traditionalist Guitar. Both are very fine albums taking me right back to, what was for me, the most formative and probably the most exciting musical period of my life, with bands such as The Blasters, The Beat Farmers, The Long Ryders, The Del Lords, Jason & The Scorchers, X, Los Lobos, Lone Justice and countless others. Haven’t listened to both albums in ages (a fact I plan on rectifying rather sooner than later), and the same is true for Sings Like Hell.

Like all albums close to your heart you never completely forget about them though, so I picked it up again recently – and, nor surprisingly, I love it as much nowadays as I did back in the mid-1990’s. I got hold of it through the record label, Glitterhouse Records, for which I was working for around that time and who released the album in Europe in 1994 (it was released on his own Travellin’ Light label in the US and was thankfully re-released through Vanguard Records which means it is still widely available). And if you are, like me, into primitive, old-fashioned and (at times) raw Folk-Blues sounding a lot like an updated version of Case’s Blues heroes from the first part of the 20th Century, it’s an album that should not be missing from your record collection.

More than his first two solo records, Sings Like Hell was for him a return to the styles and sounds he was inspired by as a guitar player, as his early inspiration were artists like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James. Where he was accompanied by a host of other players in those first two solo records, here it’s only a small group of fine musicians, accompanying him on a limited number of tracks, drums and bass for example are only to be heard on Walkin’ Bum and Well Runs Dry.

Naturally, I like the more folk-influenced songs on here best, especially Lakes Of Ponchartrain, Roving Gambler, Rose Conolly and How ‘Bout You. Lakes Of Ponchartrain, like most of the songs on here, is a traditional, but I don’t think there was ever a better version recorded. It’s slow and sweet, with Tammy Rogers’ violin coupled with Case’s harmonica and guitar making it one of the most gorgeous songs I have ever heard. Roving Gambler is even more simply arranged with only Case and his acoustic guitar – but that’s all you need when a great song is done by somebody as talented and good as Case.

Rose Conolly’s pretty tune (much like that other famous murder ballad Knoxville Girl) belies the gruesome story about a cold-blooded murder. Jesse Winchester’s How ‘Bout You is another track arranged in a very understated manner with just an acoustic guitar and (producer and ex-Lone Justice) Marvin Etzioni’s mandolin. Waltz Of The Angels is another slow and tuneful ballad (again graced by Roger’s violin).

However, the decidedly more blues-oriented songs on here don’t disappoint at all either. Album opener Brokedown Engine is as raw as they come on here and setting the mood of the album in fine style. Case’s version of Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s classic So Glad You’re Mine sounds quite different, but at the same time as authentic as you can hope to, about 50 years after it was first recorded. Especially good too is Blind Lemon Jefferson’s Matchbox Blues, it’s very cool, highly entertaining and downright catchy with some very fine guitar work by Case. Down In The Alley, for a change, is arranged only with a glorious, stomping honky-tonk piano, harmonica and vocals. The shouty Well Runs Dry is piano-led too, but, as noted before, arranged with bass and drums so it’s the fullest-sounding and most ‘rocking’ track on Sings Like Hell. Case’s only composition on here, the fabulous North Coast Blues is testament to his songwriting skills and fits on the album perfectly well and in convincing style.

Quite a few songs on Sings Like Hell remind me of Dylan’s early work, the rough-around-the-edges guitar playing and overall sound, and the rather high and nasal, raspy voice. What was working for Dylan on Another Side Of is working on here brilliantly too. Another album springing to mind as a comparison, is the Alvin Brothers’ 2014 record Common Ground, if not exactly in sound, but in spirit. Having yet to listen to the first two records again in depth, my verdict ist still out, but Sings Like Hell might very well be my favorite Peter Case album, it’s most definitely the most original and the coolest.

 

His website:

http://www.petercase.com/

Advertisements

Sherman Alexie : Reservation Blues

Sherman Alexie Reservation Blues book cover

Reservation Blues revisits the characters of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor Joseph and Junior Polatkin, first written about so memorably in the 1993 short story collection The Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven (read my review here). In Reservation Blues, long-dead and legendary Blues musician Robert Johnson somehow makes his way onto the Spokane Indian Reservation and quickly disposes his famous guitar into the hands of angry (and mostly drunk) Victor Joseph, who from that moment on, plays a mean guitar.

Together with his best buddy Junior and Thomas, he starts Coyote Springs, a band that after some rocky beginnings manages its way off the reservation (‘’anywhere off the reservation,’ Thomas said ‘ ,is along ways from the reservation’’), first to the Flathead Indian Reservation and later to Seattle, eventually landing in New York City. In between they get helped and/or distracted by a variety of imaginatively conceived characters, such as Flathead sisters Chess and Checkers Warm Water and Seattle New Agers Betty and Veronica, who briefly join Coyote Springs only to leave both the band and the reservation because ‘it’s nuts here’. Also always lurking in the shadows are the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota and Big Mom, a mystical figure living high up on Wellpinit Mountain where she is joined by Robert Johnson. Things take a decidedly turn for the worse after the audition in New York City goes less than ideal and the hoped-for path to stardom curtailed. Back on the reservation, Junior takes his own life and the band gets scattered with the wind.

Things of course don’t go by without a myriad of complications and hiccups, such as various little and big tiffs between various members of Coyote Springs, beautiful Checkers Warm Waters falling in love with the reservation priest Father Arnold, and the continuing struggle with money worries.

The writing is once again wonderfully unique and steeped in mystique, such as in the last sentence of the book ‘Checkers and Chess reached out of their windows and held tightly to the manes of those shadow hoses running alongside the blue van’.

I wasn’t that totally captivated by his writing style as when I was reading The Lone Ranger And Tonto… but that might only because the short story collection was the first book I read by Sherman Alexie and his writing style was brand new to me then.

As in that book, the humdrum tragedy of life on an Indian reservation are very much in the focus of the book, as witnessed in conversations such as this one by Father Arnold and Checkers Warm Waters: ‘Does everything have to be about money?’ ‘Of course it does. Only people with enough money ever ask that question anyway’.

Speaking for Sherman Alexie is the fact that none of the often rather serious subject matter is written in an educational or preachy way. On the contrary, he manages to convey the things he wants to say in an often downright hilarious, even wacky way, without sacrificing his messages or diluting the comments and observations of the harsh realities of life on an Indian reservation and the continuing struggle Native American society is experiencing. Which is one of the main reasons endearing his work to me so much. Reservation Blues is an extraordinarily well-conceived story featuring a great cast of memorable characters. All of which are written about with loving attention to detail, culled both from reality and the inventive mind of Sherman Alexie, who as a mixed Spokane/Couer D’Alene is uniquely well-adapted to write about these things. As for my attraction to his writings and all things Native American, that attitude of the ‘white man’ gets addressed numerous times in the book too, such as in the scenes with Betty and Veronica, so that’s given me a chance to reflect on my motivations, which is making his books particularly relevant to myself and a lot of other people reading them.