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Peter Case 

Flying Saucer Blues (Vanguard)

Wednesday, Apr 19 2000
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You could get the idea from his songs that Peter Case is obsessed with his past: From the first song on the first Plimsouls record, "Lost Time," to the first on his seventh solo album, "Paradise Etc," Case is still trying to sing his way home.

The singer/songwriter's name may be familiar from his Plimsouls days -- he was leader of a band that found its place in rock 'n' roll history on the strength of a piece of golden California jangle rock, "A Million Miles Away," and a film appearance in the song's celluloid equivalent, the culty Valley Girl. But since his decision to break up his garage band in 1983, Case has worked in near-obscurity, reincarnated as a folk singer. You could almost pin the entire movement to "unplug" on him if you wanted to; he was arguably among the first rock-types of his generation to do so, on his self-titled solo debut in 1986. But for Case it wasn't a stretch, simply a return to his pre-new wave roots as a coffeehouse performer and busker.

Flying Saucer Blues is a companion piece of sorts to its predecessor, 1998's Full Service No Waiting. The pair of records is the antidote to Case's one-off re-formation of the Plimsouls in '95 and '96, but some of that manic band's energy has spilled over. Producer Andrew Williams guided the slight departure for a second time running, with musicians like guitarist Greg Leisz and drummer Don Heffington in tow. Never one to stick to a formula, Case mixes up his usual brand of incisive folk rock with some simpatico musical styles, from old-school R&B boogie ("Coulda Shoulda Woulda") to Mexicali folk ("Cold Trail Blues"), though the various strains are embedded in California folk-rock. Case has continued to hone a finger-picking style which borrows bits from guitar players as diverse as Mississippi John Hurt and Bert Jansch, yet he remains consistently himself. He ponders the past in a trad-roots arrangement on "Black Dirt & Clay," tries on Dixieland cabaret with "Lost in Your Eyes," and steps out with a folk-blues "Cool Drink o' Water." There's only one of the long, narrative signature pieces at which Case generally excels, "Two Heroes," and it's uncharacteristically comical.

The line "Payday passed, my ship came and went/ The apocalypse is over and I still owe rent," from "Paradise Etc," could be read as the story of Case's life as a road-weary malcontent, someone who felt lost but was ultimately found. Yet his strength as a lyricist comes when he deals with the universal. And since death and taxes are apparently still inevitable, you could do worse than to let Case sing you through them; he seems to have an equally firm grasp on the past as he does on the present and future.

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Denise Sullivan

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