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It's tempting to think of Peter Case as a rock 'n' roller who went soft, abandoning the power pop/mod sounds of his '70s and '80s bands The Nerves (who wrote the Blondie hit "Hanging on the Telephone") and The Plimsouls (known for new wave classic "A Million Miles Away") for finger-picking, acoustic roots music with his self-titled debut in 1986. But the truth of the story is far more complicated than that. Since shifting into solo mode, he's made records on both ends of the spectrum, sporadically reunited The Plimsouls, and followed folk albums like 2007's Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John with records like 2010's Wig!, an amped-up guitar album featuring X drummer DJ Bonebrake behind the kit.
His new album, The Case Files, further muddies matters. Culled from Case's personal tape archives, it feature songs recorded as far back as 1985 and as recently as last year and blurs the line between Case's blues-influenced work and his power-pop heritage.
"When you make it an album, you go in and you record a whole album, but these were like one-offs," Case says. "It kind of covers the gamut of my music. I [never really] changed my style; I just changed my instrumentation and grew as a writer. [Here I've] got power pop, acoustic blues, and rock 'n' roll. It's got all the different styles that I do."
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Despite its hodgepodge nature, The Case Files works as a cohesive record. "Anything (Closing Credits)" fits somewhere between the classic power pop of Case's Nerves work and the rustic Americana of Tom Petty, "Milk Cow" barrels out of the gate with electric blues swagger, and his cover of The Rolling Stones' "Good Times, Bad Times" sounds even more haunted than the original.
While Case's early work was defined by taut, stiff rhythms and strident melodies, his love of roots music stretches back to his early teenage years. He cites artists like Reverend Gary Davis, Lightning Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, and John Fahey as favorites when he was busking at age 14.
Case has gone on to pay tribute to Fahey and Hurt on record, and in turn, musicians have honored Case and associated bands on record. The 2006 album A Case for Case features Case covers by his contemporaries, including Chuck Prophet, Steve Wynn, and Joe Ely. Earlier this year, Volar and I Hate Rock 'n' Roll Records released Under the Covers Vol. 2: A Tribute to Paul Collins, Peter Case and Jack Lee, which featured garage punks like Davila 666, The Tijuana Panthers, and So Cow.
Alive Naturalsound, the label releasing The Case Files, has been busy supplying young bands with plenty of Nerves, Plimsouls, and Paul Collins projects to investigate. The label even released Walking Out on Love: The Lost Sessions, a compilation of demos that Case and Collins had out as The Breakaways after the dissolution of The Nerves. Case notices the impact the reissues have had.
"It's caught a younger audience," Case says. "There are a lot of people who are 19 and 20 getting into the band."
At the same time, Case has noticed younger audiences being attracted to his roots work, as well.
"It seems like that's happening with younger kids," he says. "I know a kid who's 18 [and he's] super into the blues — a guitar player. When I came up, it just attracted me from a very early age. I think I was a little unusual."
2009 saw him face extensive heart surgery without insurance, the costs of which were covered by friends in the music community. "I'm very fortunate and people pulled together to help me."
"I'm insured now for everything except my heart," Case says with a laugh. "But that's kind of how America works."