An ugly, ageless motherfucker given to pork pie hats and boozy harmonica solos, Peter Wolf is about as rock ‘n’ roll as rock ‘n’ roll gets — the kind of guy rock fans want to believe in. For those fans, Wolf’s fleeting fame as an MTV-anointed solo artist during his first years in the post-J. Geils Band wilderness were a minor triumph; sure, Wolf was scoring hits with knuckleheaded synth blooze like “Lights Out,” but at least he was in there — a soul vocalist of uncommon tenderness and versatility who hadn’t let the system screw him into irrelevancy.

It was nice while it lasted. 1990’s Up to No Good was a strained, pallid attempt to recapture the party vibe of classic Geils records, and in the years since that album tanked, Wolf has doodled in the margins, making pit stops at various labels (Reprise, Artemis, Verve) to release records largely unheard by anyone not in Jann Wenner’s employ. Latter-day Wolf isn’t bad, but for some time now, he’s lacked the fire that made him so irresistible; he’s really only ever operated at two speeds as an artist, but early in his career, the transition from jack-jawed shouter to tender balladeer offered some separation. These days, the midtempo AC strummers and bluesy ballads that make up his work are more like the difference between first and second gear.

Wolf’s latest, Midnight Souvenirs, doesn’t really change the formula, but it’s still probably his best solo album. The chip on Wolf’s shoulder that made his earlier records so much fun has been whittled down with age, but he’s assembled a solid batch of songs here, and it’s certainly his best-sounding release. It also helps that Wolf lined up a pretty stellar batch of duet partners, from Shelby Lynne (who appears on the leadoff track and first single, “Tragedy”) to Merle Haggard (who arrives for the closing number, “It’s Too Late for Me”), and especially Neko Case, who comes on like a young Bonnie Raitt for the enchanting “The Green Fields of Summer.” Since 1996’s Long Line, Wolf has been trying to put some grown-up distance between himself and his long-ago classics. As often as not, it hasn’t really worked, but with Souvenirs, he makes a start-to-finish compelling case for himself, stirring the pot for simmering burners like “Thick As Thieves” while serving up addictive, radio-ready numbers like “Tragedy.”

Does the album also include a rather awkward jive-talkin’ speak/singing track? Yes. Did Wolf need to cover “Everything I Do (Gonna Be Funky)”? Definitely not. But if his ’80s hits were a minor triumph for rock ‘n’ roll fans, then the fact that Midnight Souvenirs is being released on a major label in 2010 is something like a miracle. It won’t replace your Geils live records, in other words, but this is a fine, well-seasoned stack of performances from an honest-to-goodness soul survivor. Pour yourself a glass of your favorite adult beverage, turn this on, and repeat as necessary.

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