CD Review of Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John by Peter Case

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Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John
starstarstarstarno star Label: Yep Roc
Released: 2007
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Much has been said and written about the plight of the one-hit wonder, but the career of Peter Case – whose marketability peaked in 1983, when his band the Plimsouls was featured performing their classic song “A Million Miles Away” in Valley Girl – offers a study in exactly how a guy can avoid the vagaries of the nostalgia circuit. Rather than making any attempt whatsoever to recapture his fleeting success as a power pop god, Case split from the Plimsouls and headed out on a solo career (going on 21 years now) that has found him continually stripping back and paring away at his sound. With Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John, Case’s tenth solo album, he may have finally arrived at its core; not coincidentally, this set might also be his best.

Case’s sound and songwriting focus are decidedly traditional – on each of his album’s covers, you halfway expect to see him sitting in a boxcar, carrying his possessions in a sack tied to a stick slung over his shoulder, and eating beans out of a can that’s been heated over a campfire – but they aren’t retro. The distinction is fine but clearly audible: Like the best of his peers, Case embodies rather than evokes his inspirations. As ardent an American musicologist as any we’ve seen in rock & roll since Ry Cooder, Case is singing along with the past, not just adding his voice to its echo – which is a big part of why, even though this album’s production consists mainly of an acoustic guitar and a set of lungs, he sounds utterly current.

Case seemed to be running out of steam a few years ago – 2002’s Beeline is arguably his worst album – and given that the 21st century has seen him lose both his father and his deal with longtime label Vanguard Records, he could be forgiven for turning in a lackluster set here. Happily, these 11 songs find him ambling as effectively as ever between working-class folk blues anthems and…well, quieter working-class folk blues anthems. It isn’t a major step forward, but then, it didn’t need to be – in his best moments, Case blends the rage of Upton Sinclair with the humor of Mark Twain and covers the whole thing with a coat of Delta dust, and he’s frequently at his best here.

It isn’t a party record, and it’ll never sell a million copies, but if you prefer your rock & roll to have a whiff of the primordial and aren’t happy until you can hear the strings squeak, Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John is an album to cherish.

~Jeff Giles