Album review: Peter Wolf, ‘Midnight Souvenirs’

Peter Chianca

Just to establish my Peter Wolf credentials: I owned “Lights Out” on vinyl back in 1984. That was the album whose title track inspired a video with Wolf dressed in black, surrounded by ballet dancers and jumping around on a table like a jittery lunatic. Sigh … I miss the ’80s.

Since then he’s dropped in and out of sight, often popping up out of nowhere at the end of Bruce Springsteen’s Boston-area concerts to warble “Dirty Water” with the Boss while looking, according to my sister-in-law, like a “homeless wino.” (She means that in the nicest way possible.)

But he’s also put out a couple of pretty good solo albums — 2002’s “Sleepless” stands out in particular — and had by all accounts a triumphant reunion with the J. Geils Band last year. Now he’s back with another solo effort, “Midnight Souvenirs,” and while it may not hit the heights of some J. Geils classics, it doesn’t sound like he’s trying to; rather, he’s continuing to stretch out of his blues-based rock ’n’ roll comfort zone into roles as a country crooner and R&B charmer, to varying degrees of success.

Usually a preponderance of duets is a sign of desperation for an aging artist, but Wolf makes excellent use of his special guest stars here. “Tragedy” with Shelby Lynn starts the album off in fine form – she’s both down-home and world weary on the track, and her voice meshes perfectly with Wolf’s raspy half-singing. I’d welcome a whole album from this pair.

“Green Fields of Summer” with Neko Case is beautiful and lilting, and probably unlike anything you’d think Wolf was capable of if you knew him mostly from the “Freeze Frame” era. The best of the duets, though, is “It’s Too Late For Me” with country legend Merle Haggard — Wolf never seemed like the smoky country bar type, but he keeps up with Haggard here, and then some.

Not that Wolf doesn’t do OK by himself. “I Don’t Wanna Know” has a terrific groove that makes you want to, well, jump around like a jittery lunatic, and on “Lyin’ Low” he effects an ominous tone that suits the lyrics: “When the big one comes, you gotta let it blow,” he sings, and whatever he means, it makes you want to hold on.

He also falters here and there. On “Overnight Lows” he’s the scrawniest, whitest Barry White wannabe ever, and his monologues fill the spaces between the choruses with way too much information. And his cover of “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky” just reminds us that precious little Wolf does is funky, ever. He also can’t bust completely free of classic rock tropes — “Watch Her Move” was better when it was every Rolling Stones song released between 1974 and 1981.

But even if “Souvenirs” goes off the tracks at times, it never drags — and I give Wolf credit for not just recording variations on “Centerfold” and showing up at Springsteen concerts to pass the time. It turns out two-thirds of an ambitious Peter Wolf album like this one is still better than most of the stuff being released by his contemporaries, and I for one am glad he’s still around to do it, whether he looks like a wino or not.

Peter Wolf, “Midnight Souvenirs,” Verve/UMe, April 6.