Peter Case - Biography
American singer-songwriter Peter Case was the lead singer for early '80s rock band The Plimsouls before embarking on a decades-long solo career. Born in upstate New York, near Buffalo, Case dropped out of high school and traveled to San Francisco in 1973. There, he busked as a street musician and coffee shop performer before forming his first band, power pop trio The Nerves, in 1975. The following year, they self-released their lone four-cut EP, The Nerves (1976). It featured one Case original (the brooding and Beatles-esque "When You Find Out") along with one tune from future The Beat Leader Paul Collins and Jack Lee's "Hanging on the Telephone," which Blondie would cover two years later. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) the many prodigious talents in the group, The Nerve disbanded in 1978.
The next year, Peter Case assembled his new band, Los Angeles rock quartet The Plimsouls. They recorded a five-song EP, Zero Hour (1980 Beat), the title track from which got enough spins on the venerable KROQ to make The Plimsouls one of the most sought after bands in LA. Their sound melded Tom Petty-inspired rock with Big Star-like power pop, hints of Stax R&B, and an angsty dose of Elvis Costello-esque new wave. The band's greatest asset, however, was Case's voice, a powerful and urgent instrument, despite its worn and weathered texture. All of these elements are on display on their excellent debut full-length, The Plimsouls (1981 Planet). Rolling Stone should feel embarrassed about their 2.5 star rating. All Music would later grant it 4.5 stars, correcting its critical status. Two years later, after signing to a major label, The Plimsouls issued their solid sophomore album, Everywhere at Once (1983 Geffen). More stylistically focused and tough, the album trades in the debut's breadth for a more consistent, rock-meets-new wave sound. The record features the band's iconic song, the yearning "A Million Miles Away." That and two other tracks from Everywhere at Once appeared in the film Valley Girl, boosting the band's exposure. Nonetheless, The Plimsouls broke up soon thereafter, allowing Peter Case to pursue a solo career.
His first album away from The Plimsouls, simply titled Peter Case (1986 Geffen), properly showcases the man at the fore, with Case's literate and probing tales rising above the instrumental backing. Produced by T-Bone Burnett and Mitchell Froom, the album is a tasteful mixture of roots rock, folk-blues, and introspective tales of characters on the fringe. All Music awarded the album four stars and Rolling Stone called Peter Case a "pull-out-the-stops masterpiece" and a "melancholy gem." That latter description is even more aptly applied to Case's sophomore album, the quixotically titled The Man With the Blue Postmodern Fragmented Neo-traditionalist Guitar (1989 Geffen). With support from Froom, legendary session drummer Jim Keltner, and Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, Case subtly switches his balance of influences. Instead of a rock record infused with folk and blues, The Man plays more like an Americana outing from the likes of, say, Joe Ely, wherein the singer-songwriter's efforts are sympathetically supported, lightly adorned, or left alone. A sublime album, Rolling Stone gave it a respectable three stars, while All Music properly awarded Case's effort with 4.5 stars.
Like other early '90s releases from Suzanne Vega and Richard Thompson, Case's third album, Six-Pack of Love (1992 Geffen), suffers from Mitchell Froom's claustrophobic, overly cute production values. Behind the goofy cover art, the terrible title, and Froom's glossy stew of bells and whistles, Case's songs don't stand a chance. However, poppy, piano-based single "Dream About You" would become Case's only Billboard hit, landing on #16 on the Alternative Singles chart.
Peter Case subsequently changed labels to Vanguard, a more appropriate house for his true musical direction, which continued away from pop and toward acoustic folk-blues. This evolution is immediately evident on Sings Like Hell (1994 Vanguard), where fingerpicked acoustic guitar, harmonica, and Case's gravelly vocals are the primary ingredients on a record of covers (and one original). Many of the tunes are traditional folk songs, with names like "Rovin' Gambler" and "Well Runs Dry" laying plain Case's career-long interest in exploring the tragic and seedy underbelly of American life and lore. The following year, Case returned with a dozen new original tunes on Torn Again (Vanguard 1995). With relaxed performances that also rock out on occasion, the album is among his strongest.
Around this same time, Case reunited with two of his old Plimsouls mates. After touring and writing new songs, the band emerged with their third album and first in 16 years, Kool Trash (1998 Fuel 2000). The Plimsouls picked up right where they off, banging out a sweaty mixture of roots rock and power pop. With no-frills production, the record sounds like the effort of a hungry bar band with great chops and hard-won telepathy among its members. Replacements fans should take note.
That same year, Case released his sixth solo album, Full Service, No Waiting (1998 Vanguard). Unsurprisingly, given his simultaneous commitment to The Plimsouls, it's not his finest effort. Stylistically, the record leans a little too heavily on pleasant folk tunes. He righted the balance on his next album, Flying Saucer Blues (2000 Vanguard), which features Case backed by drums, upright bass, and expert Americana multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz, along with dashes of fiddle and splashes of horns. From country ballads to jump blues, the varied sounds and styles all interweave quite well. Two years later, Case both edged back toward his rock roots and embraced new technology. With quirky "computer sounds" (as the credits read), Middle Eastern filigree in the form of tamboura and harmonium, and a tight and dry production value, Beeline (2002 Vanguard) accomplishes what Six-Pack of Love had failed at a decade earlier: making Peter Case sound hip without sacrificing his core aesthetic. No Depression called this quirky entry into Case's catalog a "solid extra-base hit." The album marked the end of his stint with Vanguard, an era which is captured on the compilation Who's Gonna Go Your Crooked Mile? (Vanguard 2004).
After a five year wait between new studio albums, Case returned with Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John (2007 Yep Roc), a solo acoustic album of new material. So, while not a direct tribute to Tennessee country blues man Sleep John Estes (as the title implies), Case's songwriting has long been indebted to Estes and his peers, and that shines through here. The record most closely resembles Sings Like Hell, with the folk-blues songs Case has penned sounding every bit like they'd been written nearly a century ago. The highlight of the album is "Every 24 Hours," which features mellifluous guitar playing from Richard Thompson.
In 2009, Case required open-heart surgery. Uninsured, a benefit was held in Los Angeles to raise money to pay for his medical expenses.