Peter Case Coulda, Shoulda … The Big Playback : Rap Nuggets

Peter Case Coulda, Shoulda …

The Bottom Line was maybe half full when Peter Case walked onstage for the late show on April 29. Just as things got under way around 11 p.m., a guy yelled out a request. Everybody could hear him. Mr. Case, who has played steadily for 25 years, first on street corners, then in dives and on stages, told the guy sure, he’d play the request. In fact, he said, he’d give the guy a private performance “in the alley, after the show.”

People in the audience laughed a bit nervously. Mr. Case,asinger-songwriter based in Santa Monica, Calif., may carry an acoustic guitar and he may have a few songs dealing with love and family life, but this wasn’t no James Taylor concert.

Mr. Case played 13 songs during the late show, six of them from his new album, Flying Saucer Blues (Vanguard Records), and three from his 1998 folk-rock masterpiece Full Service No Waiting (Vanguard). He didn’t play anything from his days as the lead singer of the Plimsouls, an early-’80’s power pop band (skinny ties, big guitars) based in California.

Great things were predicted for Mr. Case and the Plimsouls. Despite the amazing catchiness of the 1983 album Everywhere at Once (Geffen), stardom never came. While the Go-Gos and the Knack hit the Top 40, the Plimsouls got a cameo appearance in the teen movie Valley Girl … and that was about it.

When Mr. Case released his first solo album, Peter Case (Geffen), in 1986, influential New York Times critic Robert Palmer named it one of the 10 best records of the year. His second album, released in 1989, also got great notices. It seemed that if Mr. Case wasn’t going to have teenage girls chasing him in the streets, at least he’d always have the love of the geeks in the music press. But even critics’ darlings need momentum, and Mr. Case lost his when he waited three years before releasing his next album. Lo and behold, when the Mitchell Froom-produced Six-Pack of Love (Geffen) finally arrived in 1992, it was a stinker. Mr. Case then waited three more years before getting back on track with his next album of new material, the somber Torn Again (Vanguard). It was a great album, but by then the music-press geeks had other singer-songwriters to slobber over.

So there he was, alternately bitter, sincere and amused before that half-empty room on a Saturday night in New York. Five songs into the show, he unveiled “Blue Distance,” a truly major ballad from the new album. This was the high point of the show. It’s a killer song and Mr. Case gave himself over to it fully. It’s about always being on the verge of bliss with someone you love–and never quite getting there.

Flying Saucer Blues is solid, with four or five great songs and no clinkers. Aside from “Blue Distance,” the song “Black Dirt & Clay” is also amazing. It’s about playing with your first set of childhood friends, digging in the dirt and clay with them. By now, Mr. Case notes in a late verse, some of his childhood friends must be under the black dirt and clay. He doesn’t dwell on this observation or wring any cheap melodrama out of it. He is tough, and the song keeps moving along. “Black Dirt & Clay”–which he didn’t play during the Bottom Line show–is nostalgic and happy and dark all at once.

In concert, Mr. Case’s guitar-playing was sharp as always. With his odd tunings and Mississippi John Hurt-style finger-pickings, he makes a good racket. On songs like the new “Coulda Shoulda Woulda,” a funny rave-up about Mr. Case’s screw-ups and regrets, or “A Little Wind (Could Blow Me Away),” a wild one from a few years ago, he let it all out, putting his rock-and-roll training to good use. Accompanying him was David Perales, a lightning-fast fiddle player who also happens to have a smooth tenor singing voice. This duo really made a band.

Although you got your $20 worth, I’ve seen Mr. Case cast a spell on audiences. He didn’t quite pull this off at the Bottom Line. He seemed almost embarrassed to give himself over to the demands of his songs at times. It’s hard work, getting up on a stage and immersing yourself in the not-so-pretty stuff that bubbles up from your subconscious for the amusement of a half-empty house, and Mr. Case wasn’t always up to the task. He rushed his closing number, “Hidden Love,” a deep ballad from 1989. When he left the stage at around 12:30 a.m., he looked relieved to be out of there. Unlike a lot of performers, Mr. Case is not a whore for applause. He has to be in the mood.

–Jim Windolf

The Big Playback : Rap Nuggets

With 25 years of evolution under its baggy-panted ass, hip-hop’s midlife malaise seems to be occurring right on schedule. Although rap has yet to mimic rock’s decline as a cultural force, its once-thrilling Dionysian pedant grandeur–the outlaw fantasies, Joycean wordplay, and pot-

fueled chop-socky fever dreams–has grown increasingly predictable, at least among those acts that have some influence upon the culture.

Success has robbed this narrative art of import. Rapping about riches and bitches doesn’t exactly resonate when the narrator is a platinum-selling multimillionaire who has no trouble getting some. As well, many of the “underground” rappers who have been bubbling under for the last half-decade are really sheep in wolves’ clothing; Armani armies cloaked in FUBU waiting for a chance to strike. Musically, sampling laws have caused producers to settle on static loops or lazily fall back upon live instrumentation. And then there’s the ubiquitous Sean (Puffy) Combs, a surly Huey Lewis who won’t fade away.

Which is why The Big Playback (Rawkus) couldn’t have been released at a better time. Rappers prefer to do their bragging themselves, but I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that this single-CD compilation by the knowledgeable smart-asses at the defunct hip-hop ‘zine Ego Trip may come to be held in the same esteem as Lenny Kaye’s epochal Nuggets double-record set did when it was first released in the early ’70’s.

Nuggets was a collection of obscure garage-rock singles from the ’60’s–mean, crude and forgotten–released in the over-produced era of Grand Funk Railroad and Yes. It was a shiv in the back of the then-current slickee-boy value system and served, for better or worse, as a catalyst for the punk rock sensibility that was lurking beneath the culture’s surface.

The Big Playback, which has been released as a companion CD to the recently published Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists , serves a similar purpose, shaming the playa-hata haters, and 20 years into hip-hop, it’s time. James Taylor had to face Lester Bangs; Master P must suffer his Ego Trip .

It’s not acknowledged enough that hip-hop isn’t a monolith. Just as an Elvis Presley fan wouldn’t necessarily have been an Emerson Lake & Palmer head, there’s no reason to expect Public Enemy’s listeners to embrace Juvenile, or for Juvenile’s defenders to enjoy Dilated Peoples.

With that in mind, The Big Playback shouldn’t be heard as a criticism, but rather as a corrective. In an age where the Cash Money and Ruff Ryder crews are celebrated for an utterly formalized idea of danger, it may be hard for those who weren’t there to believe just how simultaneously silly and rough-edged hip-hop was during its adolescence less than a decade-and-a-half ago. It’s like hearing “Bye Bye Love” after first hearing the Everly Brothers covering Mark Knopfler tunes.

As on Nuggets , a few of the artists featured on The Big Playback have done all right for themselves in recent years, though they have all seen better days. Producer Marley Marl of “Marley Marl Scratch” is a well-acknowledged legend, as is, to a lesser extent, the vocalist on the track, MC Shan. (Shan gets curiously dissed by the otherwise obscure MC Mitchski on “Brooklyn Blew Up the Bridge.”) Positive K of “Step Up Front” would later hit with “I Got a Man.” And Craig Mack, of the once ubiquitous “Flava in Ya Ear” (Boop. Beep.) is sublime under the alias MC EZ on “Get Retarded,” which features a repeating “zoom-zoom” worthy of Esquivel and name-checks Alvin Ailey. Some of the greasers on Nuggets thought they were Dylan, too.

That’s not the artiest the compilation gets. The disc’s 10-minute finale “Beat Bop” by Rammelzee vs. K-Rob, carries a “produced and arranged by Jean-Michel Basquiat” credit, although, the liner notes explain that, according to Rammelzee, the late artist merely put up the dough to finish the record. A freestyle in the vein of Spoonie Gee’s “Spoonie’s Rap,” “Beat Bop” conjures a time when the discussion of high-low was more likely to involve ideas than apartment ceilings. And it’s a reminder of how slowly the fastest rappers rapped just 10 years ago.

One doesn’t expect music to move backward. Current attempts at old-school ambiance often sound didactic–Jurassic 5 being a prime example. But if these aesthetic values–the casual rawness and silliness, the ingeniously clashing samples, the aversion to pomposity or the emptily epic–could find their way back into hip-hop … well, don’t count on it. Divine Force may rap, “I stop crime/like Robocop” in “My Mic is on Fire,” but don’t forget that for as much time as RoboCop spent on the streets, ultimately he was defending corporate interests. And the boardroom is more crowded than the recording studio these days.

– D. Strauss

Ween’s Smart Asses Halve Their Cheek

The guys of Ween chose well when they picked their band’s name. With a single word, they evoked the smirky contempt that colored a decade’s worth of their albums from 1990’s GodWeenSatan: The Oneness through 1997’s The Mollusk .

Puerility is not necessarily a problem in my book, but the fact that Ween never explored any other emotional contours in its music had gotten awfully tedious.

Until now. On the band’s latest release, White Pepper , guitarist Mickey (Dean Ween) Melchiondo and chubby-cheeked vocalist Aaron (Gene Ween) Freeman reveal, for the first time, that Ween has heart. I can’t discern any sneering on at least half of the tracks on this album.

Three songs on the CD–”Exactly Where I’m At”, the sitar-driven “Flutes of Chi” and “She’s Your Baby”–burst with epic late-60’s references. Summoning the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix so baldly could have been a liability for the irony-loving duo from New Hope, Pa., but not here. These are lush, well-thought-out songs. If there’s any internal winking or nudging going on in them, I can’t tell. And for once, Mr. Freeman doesn’t go for the cheap laugh by talking shit all over a nice melody.

“Even If You Don’t” adds some nice crunch to a Kinks-like descending chord sequence (a la “Dead End Street”). And somebody like Christopher Cross could knock “Stay Forever” out of the ballpark.

The notion that Ween has produced an emotionally generous tune that anybody can sing might cause some anxiety among the more reflexive malcontents who can’t get enough of the band’s lo-fi antics. But there’s something for them on White Pepper too. South Park -style wackiness drives “Bananas and Blow”, which marries a watered-down, steel-drum-driven calypso groove to a song concerning being “stuck in my cabana, living on bananas and blow.” “Pandy Fackler” could be a bowler-and-white-suspenders homage to Noel Coward, but its appeal is sabotaged by patented Ween tomfoolery.

Snideness also runs through the remorseless riffage of “Stroker Ace,” and “The Grobe,” which recalls the vibe of Ween’s classic “Poopship Destroyer.” But these two cuts rock as well as they razz.

Clearly, Ween still likes to have a laugh, and that’s okay. But it wrote some fine songs for White Pepper ; songs that aren’t sacrificed for sake of irony, which comes pretty cheap these days.

–Rob Kemp