Sharps & Flats

From "Hanging on the Telephone" to hanging in the old oak tree, Peter Case has left power pop for jilted folk.

By Geoff Edgers
Published April 18, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Years ago, before Britney Spears, Kurt Cobain and even Kajagoogoo, it was safe to believe in power pop. Like the punks, those heroes in skinny ties -- the Knack, the Raspberries and the dB's among them -- used electric guitars and quick hooks to fend off the bloated cock-rock of Zeppelin, Journey and Kiss.

Peter Case was at the center of the power-pop scene in the late '70s. His first group, the Nerves, recorded "Hanging on the Telephone" in 1977, a year before Blondie issued the far more popular version. In 1980, Case moved to Los Angeles and formed the Plimsouls, a band best known for the semihit "A Million Miles Away." Despite strong billing in the movie "Valley Girl" and a pair of solid records, the group evaporated in the mid- '80s.

Case launched a solo career in 1986. Instead of trying to do what the Plimsouls were doing on his own, he moved toward a more folkish sound, recording with T. Bone Burnett and then-wife Victoria Williams. He earned a flood of critical praise, but sales were droopy and Geffen kicked him off the label just before his 40th birthday.

Case responded to the bad news in a strange way: Instead of finding another band or booking studio time for his newest songs, he sat down in a living room and recorded a set of old tunes by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Arthur Crudup, Roy Orbison and a host of other old-timers. "Peter Case Sings Like Hell" (1994) sounded more like a new start than a last gasp.

As his fellow power popsters have drifted further into the rear view -- where have you gone, Mr. Stamey? -- Case has quietly carved out a place as one of today's best singer-songwriters. And he has done it without losing his knack for pop hooks or embracing the maudlin sentimentality that marked the genre's most popular age, when its main purveyors were John Denver, Harry Chapin and Jim Croce

The new Case album, "Flying Saucer Blues," sounds a lot like the last one. The cast of musicians is largely the same as on "Full Service No Waiting" (1998) and "Torn Again" (1995). Soundwise, Case has again found a place where pop, country rock and mountain music meet. There's Dobro, pedal steel and stand-up bass, along with Case's flat-picked guitar lines. Case delivers the lyrics with a middle-aged weariness more befitting a wandering, lovesick bluesman than the happily married father he is.

But where "Full Service" had an almost claustrophobic, unifying darkness to it, "Flying Saucer Blues" feels more like a group of aural snapshots from a summer road trip. It rocks more, with the Delta groove of "Cool Drink o' Water," soul horns on "Walking Home Late" and jangly midsection of "Paradise Etc." And the songwriting is more abstract, as much about atmosphere as characters. There's the blue distance stared at by the curious lovers standing on the edge of a mountain, the black dirt and clay displaced by boys during a backyard dig to China and the blue neon of a motel sign in Memphis. If there's any doubt that Case knows how to spin a good yarn, "Flying Saucer Blues" wraps up with "This Could Be the One," a musical descendant of Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light" and as dark as anything Johnny Cash ever cooked up.

Case will never be as popular as Jewel or have Elvis Costello's wrinkled lips on his ass like Ron Sexsmith. But like Paul Westerberg, he has found a place far from the electric buzz where his gorgeous hooks can tell short stories about love, crooks and childhood longings. That might not sell many albums, but it sure makes it easy to resist the next Rubinoos reunion.

Geoff Edgers

Geoff Edgers is a writer at the Raleigh News & Observer and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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