If the Plimsouls hadn't made a memorable appearance in Martha Coolidge's '80s val/punk date flick, Valley Girl, the L.A. power pop band might not still be a part of my personal soundtrack. But they did — appearing in a movie that continues to resonate romantically for my wife and I — the result being that I can't hear the guitar riffs to "A Million Miles Away" without feeling a strong urge to grin. When the band broke up not long after the elpee containing that great slice of pop-rock was released, I've gotta admit to losing track of lead singer Peter Case and the rest of the 'Souls, though they've occasionally reunited since to record or perform as a group.
But lead singer Case has soldiered on in the years since the skinny tie era, though his current solo material is considerably more subdued than the stuff he was singing behind Deb Foreman and Nic Cage in that California movie "punk" club. His current Yep Roc release, Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John, is a largely acoustic set of original folk blues (the "Sleepy John" of the title is the blues great John Estes), infrequently dosed with occasional dollops of steel pedal or electric guitar. At times, listening to this intelligent set of guitar-centered musical commentary, I was reminded of Nick Lowe's current Yep Roc output: another example of a once-dynamic pop-rocker muting his appealing rock-out side to favor a more low-key approach. How fans of either artist react to their contemporary work largely depends on how attached those fans are the younger stuff. Since my attachment to early Case is primarily predicated on a handful of songs from a movie, I've gotta admit I'm more bothered by Lowe's defection from the rockpile ranks than Case's.
But this review's not about At My Age – I'll grouse about the onetime Jesus of Cool's disappointing disc some other day. I'm more attuned to Case's new release, in large part because of its lyrics, which possess a strong sense of pissedness about the sorry-ass state of the world today. Whether singing from a soldier's PoV or decrying the injustices of our class-based justice system in a song that sounds even more pointed following the recent Scooter Libby legal debacle, the onetime Plimsoul displays a folkish empathy reminiscent of Steve Earle or the band of sixties strummers currently being celebrated in the "Vanguard Visionaries" budget series. If a few of the disc's tracks suffer from a melodic homogeneity — placing "Ain't Gonna Worry No More" alongside "Palookaville" was not the best of moves — the singer's no-longer-boyish voice and forthright lyrics keep things interesting. (There's a neat vocal guest turn by Richard Thompson in the album's opener, "Every 24 Hours," too.) The teen-aged lovers in Valley Girl might not dig Case's less teenishly romantic direction, but I bet the former hippie parents played in their flick by Frederick Forrest and Colleen Camp would've.
Turns out Case himself (though I regrettably wasn't paying much attention at the time) had his own stint as a Vanguard Visionary in the late '90s/early '00s, a fact brought home to me by the release of the singer's own Visionaries sampler. Listening to the ten tracks offered in this collection helped this listener limn the man's progress from power popper to acoustic artist. The '90s tracks show him working roots rock territory with plenty of lyrical wit and rhythmic oomph. Even when he stretches to Dylan-esque lengths in a shuffling story song like "Two Heroes," Case and his (unfortunately uncredited) musicians keep things moving. While his quieter direction is anticipated in a respectful cover of the standard "Matchbox Blues," the overall sound on this set remains closer to the guy who was member of two great D.I.Y. era pop-rock bands (second being the Nerves) than it does his newest Yep Roc disc.
If forced to choose, I'd have to profess a preference for the Vanguard Best-Of material over Sleepy John. But, then, I remain, at heart, a pop geek. The fact remains, though, that whenever I play a Visionaries track like "Coulda Shoulda Woulda," Case's rueful country-rockin' catalog of past mistakes made ("20/20 hindsight – what a drag!"), I'm reminded how spare and unplugged ain't the only way to achieve an honest, simple sound. Coulda shoulda woulda, indeed…