Review: Peter Case — HWY 62

3.5 OUT OF 5 NUTS!

petercase-hwy62Peter Case is one of America’s great singer-songwriters but fame has largely eluded him, in part because he can’t be easily pigeonholed as an artist. His career began in the early 1980s as lead singer for the California power pop band The Plimsouls, and in subsequent years his solo output has careened from hard-edged Rock to blues to fingerpicked acoustic folk.

For him the constants have been his keen observational songwriting and his powerful, evocative voice, which sits somewhere between Jeff Tweedy and John Lennon on the tonal scale. That’s the pocket of Rock vocals right there.

These attributes are on full display on HWY 62, his 12th studio album. This is a largely acoustic album, but there are plenty of variations in tempo and mood to keep you interested. He’s backed by a fine group of musicians including a couple of incandescent turns on the slide guitar courtesy of Ben Harper.

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There is also a smouldering energy behind many of these tracks, fed by the understated intensity of Case’s vocals and the powerful content of his lyrics. He takes on a range of contemporary issues facing America, including native rights, the criminal justice system, the cost of living, and poverty.

But it never sounds preachy, because the songs are so well-structured and fitted with inviting melodies that aren’t dragged down by the considerable weight of the lyrics. “All Dressed Up (For Trial)” is a breezy, upbeat delight, despite a lyric that takes aim at courtroom injustice:

The DA throws his weight around

They all assume I’m jailhouse bound

I’ll tell the truth if that won’t help

I’m terrified to be myself

They listen in to smoke me out

The court says there’s no room for doubt.

“Pelican Bay” is a great bluesy slow-boiler that sets its sights on the American prison-industrial complex. The powerful lyric and urgent acoustic 12-string playing make it a real compelling listen:

It’s the Pelican Bay Supermax

An account to count the days

Of endless isolation

Lost in a one-room maze

There’s two million people in prison

Tonight in the U.S.A.

Eighty thousand in solitary

And a hunger strike in Pelican Bay

I think my favourite track is “Waiting On A Plane”, a beautiful, sweet, tarmac reverie with a melodic nod to Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, but with an exquisite shift in melody in the middle section that, when delivered with Case’s confident vulnerability, makes the whole song click onto another level:

Gone as far as I can go

Until tomorrow

I swear I’ll give back what I owe

Everything I stole

Well, I only meant to borrow.

This album is another solid entry from Peter Case. It’s a good place to start if you don’t have any of his previous work in your collection. And with this guy, you can never be sure what the next one will sound like, so you might as well get on the bandwagon now before it veers off in another direction.

Release Date: October 30, 2015

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