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Full Service No Waiting
Peter Case
Vanguard Records

Peter Case was one of the lucky ones--a one-hit new-wave hero whose past didn't drag him down. The Plimsouls still exist, resurrected for the recently completed third album still unheard, but they're a side project now, no longer the padding on his resume. Case is now six albums into a solo career and proving himself the veteran with young legs, getting faster with each new season. Full Service No Waiting is his best effort yet--urgent and intimate, literate without saying too much.

It's a distillation of a career that began with Case learning the blues on a San Francisco street corner, found him screaming to Valley girls and Sunset Strip boys, and wound up with his hosting a monthly hootenanny at a now-defunct folk club. He's been troubadour and punk, bluesman and rocker, '60s fetishist and '80s casualty; if ever a musician knew about capturing experience on tape, it's Case, and Full Service showcases a man who has refined his music without polishing it too clean.

"Spell of Wheels" is lovely and haunting, the soundtrack to a midnight drive down a snow-covered highway that begins as a lark, becomes dangerous for a split second, then ends in the middle of a cold nowhere. In a voice that grows more gruff and warmer with age, Case sings in the first-person about five kids who escape Kansas City and end up in Minneapolis in winter, where they "spend the winter in monochrome" as they fall in with small-time losers just like them. Yet the picture he paints bursts with lap-steel radiance: You can almost hear the pavement beneath the rubber, the snow as it falls to the ground.

Case has long been attracted to writing about people caught between living and dying, men and women so outside, they might as well be invisible. They're not absent here: Case sings of fugitives wanted for crimes unnamed, of mothers too drunk to tend to their children, of those who finance dreams with diamonds stolen from their own mothers. Case is the rare songwriter who can write in the voice of a homeless man who lives in a box on the shoreline and keep it from sounding mawkish or heavy-handed.

But Full Service is also Case's most autobiographical record: He refers to his wife as "the woman that had my kids" so casually, it's almost like a joke; he remembers the spark that comes with falling in love and prefers instead the "beautiful grind" that comes with raising children; and he ends the album by promising to play "that same sweet melody for a hundred years or more, till everyone's gone free." His heart, as always, is in the right place.

--Robert Wilonsky

 
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