Review: Peter Case Shifts to Piano Man For ‘Doctor Moan’

Peter Case
Doctor Moan
(Sunset Blvd. Records)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

And now for something completely different. At least concerning Peter Case.

The one-time punk (The Nerves) and power pop (The Plimsouls) frontman has been a hard-core folk/blues/roots rock troubadour since his still stunning 1986 solo debut. Sixteen albums and one pandemic later, he’s still at it. But now he has changed things up.

Case strips down to a (mostly) trio format. Although instead of whipping out his trusty acoustic guitar and then bringing in the typical backline of bass and drums, he switches to acoustic piano supported by bass and B-3 organ duo.

Credit the lockdown in 2020 for this substantial upheaval in Case’s sonic style. For the first time in his career, he had unlimited access to the piano in his living room without the distraction of hitting the road for another of what seems to be never-ending tours. That provided space to create an entire album instead of piecing together recordings interrupted by the necessity of leaving for live shows.

This new sound kicks off the album in stunning fashion. The opening track, “Have You Ever Been in Trouble,” finds Case pounding the 88s, heavy on the left-hand notes, with the authority and enthusiasm he applies to hitting the six strings. Chris Joyner’s organ adds spooky undertones and bassist Jon Flaugher brings thumping bottom as Case sings Have you ever been abandoned?/Did you ever run at night?/The streets a maze beneath your feet/Your heart concealed in fright with all the anxiety that concept implies.

The set is heavier on ballads such as the moving  “Eyes of Love” where the threesome connect on one of the album’s most tender moments, albeit one vibrating with unsettled shades due to the darker organ/piano collaboration.

Case is no Elton John as a pianist but he makes up in fervor what he lacks in technical proficiency as on the propulsive “Give Me Five Minutes More.” He accompanies himself on harmonica while playing keys and singing that he needs just five minutes to discover the worth…inherit the earth… and rewrite this song.

The Lennon-ish “Wandering Days” returns us to the Case we are more familiar with as he reaches for his guitar, lamenting about being landlocked in these rooms, likely a reference to the pandemic.

Blues have often seeped into Case’s songs. This album’s “Ancient Sunrise,” “Downtown Nowhere’s Blues” and “The Flying Crow” (the latter finds him blowing convincing blues harp), are tinged with references to that. The only instrumental in Case’s voluminous songbook is the unaccompanied subtle “4D,” a pleasant two-minute distraction but not something many will return to.

Once you get by the rather jarring realization that this is not another Peter Case album featuring his combination of guitar-based folk, blues, and rock, it’s easy to warm up to what is probably a one-off experiment in his discography. Like all the finest veteran artists, he’s probing another avenue to connect. Case, as the piano man on Doctor Moan, delivers moderate but impressive success.

Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong/ The Aperturist

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