With his new album Peter Case has come full circle. While Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John is not the same sharp turn as his eponymous 1986 album was (in contrast to the preceding rockin’ Plimsouls), the Californian’s first on the Yep Roc label does constitute a return to simplicity (not to mention a homage to roots) that’s refreshing in conception and execution.
Which sensation would not be so cleansing had not Peter Case experimented so widely in the twenty-one year interim with styles and production in both recording and writing (hear Flying Saucer Blues and Beeline). Yet songs such as “Every 24 Hours” sound utterly contemporary as the lyrics are drawn directly from the author’s own experience on the road (literally as he tours and figuratively as he lives his independent troubadour life). The images in lyrics such as that of “Million Dollar Bail” are as finely etched as the acoustic guitar figures.
Meanwhile, the author’s social conscience comes to the fore in the most artful manner possible. The lines from that song concerning ‘two kinds of justice’ sounds less a self-righteous pronouncement than a cautionary observation. But Sleepy John recalls the original spirit of the folk ethic in more ways than one. Words and music of songs like “Underneath the Stars” come naturally to Peter Case and the performance sounds all the more effortless because he refuses to belabor the point(s) he makes. He can turn the personal to the universal with the fluidity of his singing and playing as well as his writing; his ruminations on solitude here come from a variety of angles, all perspectives well-developed.
Broad cultural references inform “Pallookaville” while the gutsy delivery of “Get Away Blues” expands the dynamics of this deliberately stripped down concept beyond what you might expect: there’s diversity of sound even within the acoustic textures. And you can hear Case’s sense of humor as well as his humility there too: he’s secure enough in his own identity to cover Robert Wilkins’ tune, confident it will be of an equally authentic piece with the remainder of the album.
Only a small handful of guests appear on Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John, including most conspicuously the esteemed Richard Thompson. Yet the echoes of Duane Jarvis’ electric guitar on “I’m Gonna Change My Ways” and the sharp pedal steel from Norm Hamlet on “That Soul Twist’ suggest Peter Case can now proceed from this personal and artistic watershed album into another cycle of full-production and accompaniment. In doing so, there’s little chance he’ll be compromising his integrity in the least.