Forgotten Albums: Peter Case, “The Man with the Blue postmodern fragmented neo-traditionalist Guitar”

So I think the story goes this way, not that it’s all that.

Around June 87, Marshall Crenshaw comes out with his fourth album Mary Jean & 9 Others. Huge Crenshaw fan that I am, I probably buy it the day it comes out. I like it pretty well but don’t think it’s anywhere as good as his previous effort, Downtown. A few months later, I’m over the Champaign Public Library, where I know they carry a subscription to Stereo Review. The October 87 issue reviews Mary Jean. Steve Simels is a big MC promoter, but he’s not too impressed with the effort this time: “Only an odd cover, Peter Case’s ‘Steel Strings,’ makes any impression at all.”

I’ve seen Case’s eponymous debut album, which came out about a year earlier, on display at Record Service. I now do a little digging, read good things, and soon make a purchase. It’s very, very good, and I even think I prefer the original version of “Steel Strings.” At this point I’m not aware of Case’s history with the Nerves and the Plimsouls, but this disk definitely puts him on my radar (where he winds up staying for around fifteen years).

Fast forward to the early summer of 89. Now I’m cruising the Urbana Free Library, thumbing through their CD collection, and I espy Case’s second album, which had come out mid-April and has a crazy-long title. I check it out and ask my officemate Paul to put it on tape for me. It’s not as immediately winsome as Peter Case, but there are plenty of tracks that come to grow on me. The musicianship is decidedly fab: David Lindley and Jim Keltner play on several tracks, as well as David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. Now thirty years on, I get the chance to talk up some of these tunes.

Leading off is “Charlie James.” The liner notes credit authorship to “Traditional,” which certainly feels applicable. A tiny bit of research on YouTube took me to a version by Texas bluesman Mance Lipscomb.

 

My college had a four-week May Term at the end of the academic year. My first year I took a topics class in literature focusing on short fiction. We spent one chunk reading several stories by Anton Chekhov. I’m pretty certain we covered Chekhov’s gun principle in that segment of the class, and it stuck; I was reminded of it when I saw a production of The Three Sisters, put on by the drama folks at the University of Kentucky a year or so later.

All of this came back to me again when I first heard Blue…Guitar‘s nominal single “Put Down the Gun,” a plea to a friend to calm down. Case definitely had read his Chekhov (even sticking his reference in the third verse).

 

When we were packing for my sabbatical year in upstate New York in 2004, I included a couple hundred CDs to play on the boombox we would use for a stereo. One of them was Blue…Guitar. (I’d bought a copy at Record Swap shortly before I left C-U. If I’m reading the sticker correctly, looks like it showed up there in April 92, which means I got it around the time Case’s third solo disk Six Pack of Love was released.) One fall evening, maybe around the time Ben was about to turn four, Martha was out somewhere and I stuck this on. The fourth track, a Cajun-influenced number called “Travellin’ Light,” comes on, Ben and I bounce around a little to it, but then he asks what the song is about. Maybe he’d caught the phrase “mixed-up kid” from the lyrics? I don’t remember now exactly how I put it–something about a young man who was wandering around without a home–but Ben was horrified. His face scrunched up and he started crying. Seeing that moment of empathy from one’s offspring, especially one so young…touching.

 

But track 5 is the piece on the album most likely to make me cry. Poor Old Tom had joined the Navy just about the time that Kelly and Sinatra were living it up in On the Town, but Tom never got the chance to trip the light fantastic. I’d love to know if Case had met someone like this, a homeless vet who’d been jailed and institutionalized, chewed up and thrown away. Regardless, it’s masterful; in June 2017, Case did a benefit for folks like Tom in his home turf of upstate New York.

 

I don’t have anything to say about “Two Angels” except that it’s a pretty ballad with Benmont Tench playing organ and it might be worth three minutes of your time today.

 

The penultimate song, “This Town’s a Riot,” showed up in a mix tape post three weeks ago. You can find it here if you like.

I was fortunate to see Case in concert once. James and I took him in at a bar near UK’s campus in early June 2000. He was touring in support of his most recent release Flying Saucer Blues (one of my favorites). It was just Case on guitar and an accompanist on violin. A true showman, he definitely knew how to play the crowd. I don’t remember much of the playlist now, but I feel certain he played Blue…Guitar‘s closing track, “Hidden Love.” This one might be in my all-time Peter Case Top 10; it wound up on another of my mix tapes somewhere along the way.

 

When he turned solo, Case left the rock and pop of his earlier days behind and concentrated on folk and blues (I generally like his folk-oriented stuff much more). Guess he wound up being a cult favorite of sorts, but I’m happy to be a member.

 

Forgotten Albums: Throwing Muses, “Hunkpapa”

One of the good/not-always-so-good things about Altgeld Hall’s proximity to Campustown was the constant temptation to slide on over to Record Service to check out the list of new and upcoming releases, gander at the Hot 100, plot future acquisitions, etc. The distance between our office in the basement and RS’s blue awning on Green Street was maybe a couple hundred yards, so visits would  happen at least twice a week on average. Yeah, I may not have had too much of a life then…

There are plenty of albums from the late 80s I didn’t purchase that I can still visualize being on display at the Service. One was The Fat Skier, an EP released in 87 (or 88? I’m seeing conflicting info as I cast about the Web) by a three-woman, one-man college rock quartet from New England, Throwing Muses. Don’t know that I heard it played in store, but I noticed it for weeks and kept the band’s name in mind.

I noticed them in earnest again in early 89, when “Dizzy” started being featured on 120 Minutes. A brief investigation into their new release Hunkpapa led to a purchase, probably via a music service like Columbia House or RCA (alas, I didn’t always buy local). It wound up in moderate rotation for a couple of years and was a harbinger of sorts of the more outré stuff I investigated over the next 3-5 years. Noticing “Dizzy” in the top 10 on the 4/1/89 Modern Rock Tracks chart a couple of weeks ago got me to dust Hunkpapa off for a few spins; let’s listen to some favorites from it.

Things kick off with the relatively subdued “Devil’s Roof.” Lead Muse Kristin Hersh’s voice isn’t what you’d call pretty, and her lyrics are often a bit dense to cut through—about all I know is that our narrator’s husband is AWOL—but there’s a nice minimalist approach here I find engaging.

 

Reviews of their early work note shifting tempo is a frequent feature. We get that aplenty in the next track, “Bea,” a first-person account from a prostitute.

 

Song 3 is the single. I think what’s on offer is attractive, but everything I’m reading now indicates Hersh has long disliked it as a too-intentional effort at commercial viability.

 

Hersh’s stepsister Tanya Donnelly contributes two songs to Hunkpapa. “Dragonhead” starts off with little more than noise but changes gears into a charming 6/8 second half. Donnelly’s vocals are much sweeter, even if the lyrics are as off-kilter as Hersh’s.

 

“Fall Down” is my favorite song on the album. The back-and-forth between the short verses and brief chorus, that guitar noise going on behind it all…fantastic. Out of all these, it’s the one pointing closest to one of the directions I was being led in my sonic explorations.

 

I liked Hunkpapa well enough overall, I suppose, but apparently not so much to keep buying future Muses releases. (“Counting Backwards,” off the follow-up The Real Ramona is a nice song, though.) Donnelly, who’d joined Pixies bassist Kim Deal on a side venture in the interim, left after Ramona to front her new group Belly. Their debut disk Star contains two of my favorites from 93: “Feed the Tree” and “Slow Dog.”  Hersh soldiered on with the band until 97; before things wound down, they had a decently big alternative hit, “Bright Yellow Gun.”

(Absolutely trivial and useless aside: Donnelly wrote two completely different songs called “Angel” for Hunkpapa and Star. In 94 I made a mix tape for my friend Greg called Then and Now; the theme was pairs of songs from each artist included, one older and one current-ish. Guess which two songs I selected to represent Donnelly? What’s more, both John Hiatt and Kirsty MacColl had pretty awesome songs entitled “Angel” on their 93 disks—those also made the tape…)

Forgotten Albums: Adele Bertei, “Little Lives”

I went to St. Louis to visit my college friends Mark and Lana on the second weekend of March 89. We went out and about for awhile on Saturday and wound up, naturally, at a music store, where I picked up Little Lives, by Adele Bertei, a disk I’d seen recommended somewhere (doubt it was Rolling Stone, since their blurb apparently didn’t appear until the 3/23/89 issue). I listened to it back at my friends’ apartment and was pretty quickly captivated; it wound up being the album I listened to most frequently that spring.

I’ll let Wikipedia summarize Bertei’s career, mentioning just one thing: it turns out I’d heard her voice once before picking up this disk—perhaps her biggest turn in the spotlight was being the back-up singer on Thomas Dolby’s “Hyperactive.” Little Lives sounded nothing like that. It’s mostly synth-driven dance music, with a few slower numbers thrown in. Not generally my sort of thing, but the lyrics are intelligent overall, and Bertei shows a strong sense of story development in her writing.

My recollection is that Little Lives got decent enough reviews at the time, but sold so poorly that it disappeared from even the cutout bins fairly quickly. One sign of its almost utter obscurity: only five of its ten tracks appear on YouTube. Unfortunately, some of those I like best aren’t represented, but I’ll share with you what I can find.

The single, which made #40 on the AC chart in late 88, is the anti-apartheid “Little Lives, Big Love.” There’s even a real video!  It’s a great leadoff song, grabbing my attention so much that I wanted to keep listening.

 

The deal was sealed with track #2, “The Green Suit.” I was definitely in for the rest of the album at this point.

 

“Truth and Lies” is pretty topical for a dance number, noting a couple of events from 87: the Black Monday stock market crash of October and the Jessica Hahn-Jim Bakker sex scandal, which had broken in March.

 

The other two songs on offer today are ones I wouldn’t have picked for this post given a choice; they’re both among the slower pieces. “The Loneliest Girl (Pentimento)” tells about Jackie, who’s decided to leave town “rather than live life in a masquerade,” while “Golden Square” is a heartfelt ballad about a love affair that’s seemingly gone awry.

 

 

If I could, I’d have replaced the last two (nice as they are) with tracks 8 and 9: “Fool for Love,” an up-tempo number produced by Gary Katz, and “Hollywood,” a noir-ish piece about reaching out to a friend who’s succumbed to the temptations of the LA lifestyle. Another option would have been the erotic-sounding closer, “Love This Way.”

I’m not sure I’m coming across as a strong enough advocate for the disk, giving you enough reason to seek it out. I’ll just say this: I could still listen to it multiple times a day (and did so one day last week).

Bonus content: a pretty solid unreleased single that Bertei recorded around 86 with the help of members of Scritti Politti (yes, Green’s singing backup).

 

Forgotten Albums: Tanita Tikaram, Ancient Heart

Well, it’s taking a little while for the 1989 project to get to music actually released that year. Pretty soon we’ll pivot toward that, but—quelle surprise—at the beginning of the year I was listening to a lot of stuff I’d bought toward the end of 88.

One of the more rewarding disks I was playing frequently in early 89 was the debut album from a 19-year old of Fijian and Malaysian parents, born in Münster and who moved to London about the time she became a teenager. Ancient Heart is an apt title for the album; Tanita Tikaram displays via both songwriting and singing a wisdom that she couldn’t possibly have gained through experience. Her voice—I see the words “husky” and “smoky” used to describe it in the reviews I’ve looked up in recent days—sounded like nothing else going on at the time. The lyrics are often oblique but never alienating. The album was co-produced by Rod Argent (Zombies and, of course, Argent) and Peter Van Hooke (Mike and the Mechanics). You get a tiny bit of late-80s synth vibe from it, but on the whole they managed to avoid doing things in the production that would make it sound dated.

For some reason, it’s been years since I broke Ancient Heart out for a listen. That changed last week.  I’d forgotten just how good it is, and I suspect it’ll go into occasional rotation again now.  Let’s take a listen to five of my favorite tracks.

The lead-off song (and first single) is “Good Tradition.”  It was Tikaram’s only top 10 hit in the UK (it also went top 10 in Ireland and Sweden). The video shows her with a verve and a perkiness we don’t see anywhere else:

 

The other upbeat track on offer today is “World Outside Your Window,” the fourth and final single.  This charted only in the UK, making #58, but it feels plenty radio-friendly to me.

 

If you’ve heard anything from Tikaram, it’s this one—it’s certainly how I came to know of her.  I saw the vid for “Twist in My Sobriety” (which was filmed in Bolivia) on VH-1 quite a bit in the fall of 88. It was by far her biggest hit worldwide, going top 10 in Austria, France, Germany, Ireland, Norway, and Switzerland. An absolutely arresting track with a killer oboe part.

 

One of my least favorite songs from my college years is Lionel Richie’s “Say You Say Me.” I guess I found it too saccharine, and I was utterly baffled by the insertion of an up-tempo section before things swell to the final chorus. “He Likes the Sun” pulls a similar stunt in terms of tempo, yet here I totally dig on it. I have no idea what “I’m tired of chip inside and playing bronze for cool” means, but Tikaram manages to make it sound almost profound.

 

My last selection is, without rival, the prettiest and most melancholy piece on the album. Just piano and strings and written in 3/4 time, “Valentine Heart” might be the cut I suggest you should listen to today if you’re only going to pick one of these to play (maybe my current somber mood is behind that recommendation, though).

 

Tikaram released three more albums before I left grad school in 92; I picked them all up at the time but none made an impression anything akin to that of Ancient Heart (I’ve kept only the sophomore effort, The Sweet Keeper). You’d think that a 19-year capable of stuff like this wouldn’t be peaking then, but here we are. She’s continued to record sporadically through the years, even to this day, and had low-charting singles in the UK through the 90s. Tikaram is still a Londoner (perhaps even rich with complaint), and will be turning 50 on August 12.

 

 

Forgotten Albums: Loey Nelson, Venus Kissed the Moon

John and I subscribed to Rolling Stone during the years we roomed together at Illinois, and I think I maintained the subscription for most of the rest of the time I lived in Urbana. The articles I was always most interested in were the album reviews (a carryover from my Stereo Review-reading days), but I also took time to look at various short notes they had about performers, which were usually more toward the front of the magazine. I suspect it was this blurb, under “New Faces” in a June 90 issue, that first brought Loey Nelson to my attention. (As an aside, I bet I also took note of that snippet on the same page about the Sundays.) This was smack dab in the middle of the period where the majority of my purchases featured female vocalists/singer-songwriters.  I was generally on the lookout for hopeful artists-on-the-rise, as well, so it’s no surprise that I soon sought out Venus Kissed the Moon. It became one of my most-listened-to disks the year I lived by myself, after John and Ann got married.

The album has a great pedigree: top-notch studio musicians such as Leland Sklar and Russ Kunkel abound, and it’s co-produced by David Kershenbaum (it definitely sounds great). Nelson wrote all its songs but two, a cover of “To Sir With Love” and the Doc Pomus/Dr. John-penned “Only the Shadows Know.” There’s enough going on stylistically not only to keep one’s interest but also to prevent an obvious pigeon-holing.  The title track is a cool, jazzy thing, and there are the country-rock inflections of the sort I was enjoying then on several tracks, including personal favorites “East of the Sun,” “All or Nothing,” and “Railroad Track” (I put the last of these on Way Cool Stuff, one of my all-time favorite mix tapes, in 91).  A couple of contemporaneous reviews I’ve found online make a comparison to Edie Brickell; I’m not sure I hear it, but maybe I’m focusing more on the sound rather than words? Overall, I really enjoy about three-fourths of the songs. It’s nothing particularly earth-shaking in the end, but I’m having a lot of fun listening to it again right now.

I was plenty good at digging on music that didn’t get much traction back then, but Nelson was a bit of an outlier even in this regard, basically disappearing from view after Venus (she did show up as leader of the band Carnival Strippers a few years later, but their one album was barely noticed). A quick internet search seems to indicate she’s back in her native Milwaukee; she has a Facebook page and has recorded a few songs in recent years.

You can find the whole album on YouTube if you’re so inclined (there are a couple of places selling new copies online, too). I’ll put two songs here. One is the aforementioned “Railroad Track” (which includes homages to Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams” and Roy Orbison’s “Dream Baby”).

 

The other is the final track, a beautiful ballad called “Night Sky.”  It was the first song I looked up last night when this album crossed my mind. It’s a good thing when they get the sequencing right, especially with the last song. It almost feels like a benediction.

 

Always grateful for the albums that comprise the soundtrack of my grad school years, maybe the obscure ones the most.