What a long, strange trip it's been for Peter Case. He's gone from the proto-power pop of the Nerves and Plimsouls to several solo albums of reflective, spunky folk rock. Then it was back to the Plimsouls, and now he's moved to the stark, virtually naked Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John. (The title refers to an inspiration of Case's, the late rural blues singer Sleepy John Estes.)
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Sleepy John is just Case and his brittle-sounding acoustic guitar, with occasional support from another singer or guitarist (such as Richard Thompson on "Every 24 Hours"). While some—myself included—might miss the Plimsouls, there's no denying the unaffected conviction, indignation and anger in these stripped-down performances. Case's vocals evoke the anguished drawl of Hank Williams Sr., Dylan's tart humor and Ramblin' Jack Elliot's ramblin', while his narratives share Woody Guthrie's observations of characters lost in the mythic American Dream. "Million Dollars Bail" is a statement on Los Angeles justice, Phil Spector-style, and "Underneath the Stars" is a matter-of-fact account of homelessness. Festive stuff this isn't, and taken in one sitting, the disc is even a little same-y. But if you appreciate songs as societal mirrors and a spare aesthetic, Case is a worthy successor to the hallowed line of politically wary songsters.