Peter Wolf: “Midnight Souvenirs”
Here is a man who works small, quiet miracles. Peter Wolf makes the kind of albums that never make it on to year-end lists; there’s nothing flashy about any of them, nothing that could in any sense by perceived as invention or envelope-pushing. He’s a traditionalist, a rock and roll romantic, and old but seemingly ageless man who makes music for folks who prefer the way they made records in the 60s and 70s– not for the fickle attention spans of the iTunes generation, nor for the indie rock blogs and their insatiable thirst for something subversive, ironic, or modern. But would you believe that his albums make year-end lists anyway? His last two, Fool’s Parade and Sleepless Nights, received best-of-decade and best-of-all-time honors, respectively, from Rolling Stone, and his new one, Midnight Souvenirs, received a glowing advance from the Huffington Post, which promised that this one would land on year-end lists galore come December 2010.
Maybe it will and maybe it won’t; by now, I think it’s pretty clear that Wolf makes the records he wants to make, and critical accolades are probably just the icing on the cake. Regardless, his latest reveals in abundance the magic charms he has long employed to make his music stick. Why should anyone, in 2010, care about music as sturdy and old-fashioned as this? Because there are so few people who do it better; Wolf is not just inspired by, but actually a contemporary of folks like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Ian Hunter. He writes in the tried-and-true rock and roll mode that Bruce abandoned a long time ago– the kind that harkens back to a day when “rock and roll” was a much bigger umbrella, casting its shadow over country and soul and the blues, and when a song’s weight was measured by its honesty, its integrity, its unvarnished sense of romance.
Wolf has it in spades here; at one point he sings that love is “young and hot and blind,” the kind of line that seems clumsy on paper, but when you hear it in the context of rock and roll– well, could there be any purer poetry? And then he twists the knife: “And then it leaves us all behind.” It’s a reflection for 2:00 AM, a rock and roll truism that Wolf imbues with the entirety of his heart and soul. Make no mistake: He’s a craftsman in the best sense of the term, his gifts owing to his ageless voice but also to his sense of pacing, the way he delivers a lyric with momentum and cadence, the way he presents these songs with just the right level of adornment– but he’s also a true believer. This is the music he loves, and he commits himself and his art to making us love it and believe in it, too. He exerts himself, fully, in making this record not just impressive, but inviting– not the kind of project that sits on the shelf and gathers dust along with abstract admiration, but actually welcomes the listener into its presence and works up a sweat to keep him there. How else, really, could you explain the bewildering appeal of Wolf’s over-the-top but totally believable, unironic spoken word delivery in the irresistible Philly soul groove of “Overnight Lows?”
That song namechecks the Grateful Dead but also speaks sweetly of romance and sex, which gives a pretty good survey of the kinds of late-night musings and midnight souvenirs Wolf collects here. But there’s more: He gives a maddeningly catchy, surprisingly understated (while still totally charismatic) reading of Allen Toussaint‘s “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky.” He enlists Merle Haggard for “It’s Too Late for Me Now,” a country weeper dripping with empathy; Neko Case for an aching Celtic ballad called “The Green Fields of Summer,” a song seemingly constructed from the purest stuff of romance and longing; and Shelby Lynne for a smoky late-night country-soul ballad called “Tragedy.” The guest spots are perfectly cast, but not strictly necessary; Wolf is equally engaging on the driving rock of “Lying Low,” the cantankerous blues of “Thick as Thieves,” and the sweet E-Street bop of “I Don’t Wanna Know.”
The songs are vulgar– in the best possible sense: There’s no pretense, no frills, no irony or false emotion. It’s the real grit and soul of rock and roll, and it’s written and performed with vigor and an appreciation for the simple, direct appeal of singing and songwriting and record-making in the classic vein. You can bet that Wolf and his cohorts has a blast making it, and that you’ll have a blast playing it. And you can bet that, even if it doesn’t make many year-end lists, it’ll be played much longer and more often than some of the stuff that does.