Friday, March 31, 2023

Freedom down the bending avenue

Songwriter Peter Case has a new record just out from Sunset Blvd Records. Entitled Doctor Moan, it's his first album of original songs since HWY 62 in 2015, and his first ever on which the piano, rather than the guitar, serves as his primary instrument. The shift isn't entirely unprecedented, since two years ago he alternated a bit between the two instruments on a collection of covers of folk songs and blues called The Midnight Broadcast, but still, it's a move into new songwriting territory. It's not entirely a clean break, as there's one tuneful guitar-driven track, "Wandering Days," that wouldn't have been out of place with his work with the Nerves in the mid-1970s. Most of the record, though, draws as much from the postwar generation of jazz pianists like Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, and McCoy Tyner, as well as bits of classic gospel, soul, and blues, as it does from pop and rock. (As it happens, Case has been sitting in on piano now and then at the Saint John Coltrane Church in San Francisco, and he's been known to sneak in a few bars of "Blue Monk" during warm-ups.)

My favorite track so far, "Have You Ever Been in Trouble?" is built around a few gorgeous dark chords and makes delicious use of the piano's lowest keys. Like much of his songwriting, it explores the world of the down and out (in the West Coast style familiar from Charles Bukowski and Tom Waits) while at the same time weighing the possibilities for redemption. The bridge here is particularly lovely, both tonally and lyrically:
There's freedom down the bending avenue
Do you see someone coming?
Something you can do?
There's one thing I know for sure is real
The moment you surrender
The wounds begin to heal
Here's your reprieve
Ask and you'll receive

"Downtown Nowhere's Blues" engagingly captures the denizens of a joint called the Round-the-Clock Diner:
Out front by the curb they're making noise
A bunch of old men that act like boys
Big T turns to me while I'm try'na chew
Says "If I had a dog half as ugly as you
I'd make him walk backward through Downtown Nowhere"

There are some interesting reverberations between these two songs: "Have You Ever Been in Trouble?" speaks of "the Holy Ghost / Coming down the alley / Just like a megadose," while a woman in "Downtown Nowhere's Blues" who is on "a microdose of LSD / [...] fiddles with the jukebox and her destiny." Different paths, different revelations.

Other than Case's piano and the one guitar-based track, the instrumentation on Doctor Moan is sparse but effective; it features Jon Flaugher on bass and Chris Joyner on organ. The cover art depicts the vintage Steinway upright Case used to record the album. This is definitely a record worth checking out.

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