by Tom Hallett
Welcome to the very last ‘Round The Dial of 2005, gang! It’s been a helluva year, and I for one am glad to leave it behind. Let’s hope Ought Six brings us all a bit better fortune—individually and as a nation, planet and universe. As for the ‘Dial, we’re gonna throw our usual spanner in the works here, and instead of running our planned year-end reviews, we’re gonna toss out two weeks worth of New West Records reviews!!
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “See, I’m so damn happy. I’m a big
rich man. Rich in life, Goddammit! I have a job, I have my self-esteem, I have
discipline. And I’m becoming a very good entrepreneur!” —
SONG OF THE WEEK: “Tampa to Tulsa” — The Jayhawks
Why? Well, ‘cause these very important addendums to the tale didn’t
make the space cut for our recent cover
story on Twin/Tone co-founder/hometown boy done good Peter Jesperson’s
latest venture. We’ll be back to finish up the ‘05 bidness in two
weeks (have no fear—it’s some great stuff! We’ll be checkin’
out the latest albums from Steve Wynn & The Miracles, Gini Dodds & The
Dahlias, Curtiss A, Dan Israel, The Capital Sons and Brett Larson, plus killer
DVDs from Syd Barrett, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Devo, New Order, The
New York Dolls and Drive-By Truckers!!)—so have a safe and happy New Year,
kids, and thanks to all of you for reading and writing those great letters—keep
Georgia-based singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt’s twelfth album proper
finds him dealing with subjects both old and new, while musically going beyond
almost anything he’s done in the past. From the stately, string-laden
melodrama of opener “Virginia” (“... yes Virginia, I love
you enough to die ...”) to the timely, spooky shakes of “Little
Caesar” (“... little Caesar has a mandate/ Now there is no doubt/
The blessing of the senate/ And the citizenry/ Rome is bowing at his feet/ What
will he do with all his power ...”) right through to final cut “Gnats,”
with its bizarre log drum percussion and half-silly, half-mystical lyricism
(“Bumps and stumps and green tattoos/ I know why your crutches bruise/
Biscuit dough and oleo/ I know where the time goes ...”), it’s clear
that Chesnutt is not just hot on the heels of his latest muse, but that he’s
tagged, bagged and stuffed it already.
With a slew of top-notch musicians—wife Tina on bass, jazz legend Bill
Frisell on guitar, Brian Wilson cohort Van Dyke Parks on keys and legendary
drummer Don Heffington (Lone Justice, The Jayhawks)—on board and melodies
that waver between Beach Boys’ bombast and George Martin-esque mellowness,
the album comes off like an ethereal, other-worldly collision between late-Sixties
recording ethics and post-everything musical daredevil-ism. Parks expertly blends
his patented, soothingly creepy arrangements with Frisell’s lone arranger
axe-work, while Heffington and Ms. Chesnutt provide just the right amounts of
skittery, off-kilter/spot-on percussion and solid, comforting bottom end to
a whirl of off-the-cuff musical brainstorms, accidental found sounds and cross-breeding
genres of the most unlikely acquaintance. Such is the combined force of these
unlikely conspirators that one might almost be tempted to say the songs could’ve
been almost as powerful if done strictly instrumentally.
Thankfully, though, Chesnutt lays his multi-hued, mind-dazzling lyrical prowess
(“logic squeezed out like mustard on a corn dog,” as he so accurately
observes in “Vesuvius”) down in thick batches here, producing another
solid stack of future faves for fans and musicologists to pore over. “What
Do You Mean” is a dreamy, wispy ballad, Vic trading vocals with an angelic
backing chorus (thanks, Liz Durrett!) on lines like, (him) “It is a vibration,
it moves in a wave” (her) “You are a surfer on that clarion tone”
(him) “I hope so” (her) “we know so ...” It should be
noted that Vic is in absolutely top form vocally here, as well—and though
he’d probably blush at the mere suggestion, his once-peculiar Southern
croon has slowly morphed over the years into a smooth, sexually-suggestive beast
that seems equally at home conquering a bedroom ballad as it is a raucous rock
anthem. Then again, this is the guy who once sang, “I just wanna be Aaron
“Ignorant People” rolls in on a wave of choppy percussion and island
guitars, Vic revisiting a past (real or imagined) he’d sooner forget:
“Born as I was to ignorant people/ Too traumatized to take me home ...
but instinct saved me/ The schemer looked down upon the screamer ... and trained
me to be what is here in front of you/ A ticket to see ... fate has been so
good to me/ You may not understand how I can be thankful to be where I am ...”
Maybe not, Vic, but we understand how good fate was to bring you to us, and
for that we most certainly are thankful. Another classic from America’s
answer to Leonard Cohen.
Age Of Miracles
member of alt-country godfathers Green On Red and musical experimenter deluxe
Chuck Prophet’s second album for New West, Age Of Miracles, came
out a year ago but is definitely worth a quick re-visit. Building on the hippety-hoppy,
funked-out, rocked up, smoothed-down grooves of his last knock-out release,
No Other Love, Prophet and “long-suffering wife/bandmate”
Stephanie Finch (along with keyboardist Jason Borger, Red Meat alum/pedal steel
whiz Max Butler, four bassists, five drummers, a beatbox and a programmer) gleefully
continue to break all the rules here.
The lyrics at first seem deceptively simple—straight-forward love songs
or story-songs or thematic current event songs or dark, cosmic-surfer songs—but
upon closer listen, one finds Prophet to be among the rarest of song-writing
talents: One who’s able to meld the sage observations of the omnipotent
Outsider with the painful, all-too-human declarations of what he calls “...
the smallest man in the world ...” to create tunes that let the listener
both peer autonomously into fascinating tales and simultaneously experience
the emotions of the subjects thereof.
He probably nails his own wonderfully twisted psyche and gloriously original
oeuvre best in his own words: “All roads lead to Dylan I suppose,
beyond that, if I mention one influence I’d have to leave out a hundred.
One definite influence on this record is my increasingly acute awareness that
we’re living in the modern age. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not
about to throw my laptop into the river any day soon. I’d probably end
up developing some kind of a tic without it. There’s just no time. No
time to daydream, even less time to think. Fast food express lines, meth?paced
TV, medications marketed to women who ‘have no time for yeast infections’
(as if the rest of us have the time). Genetically cloning the family pet, prescription
miracle drugs, mad cows, madder scientists ... watch those carbs! The psychosis!
On second thought, I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Neither would
we, Chuck. Neither would we.
That’s it for this time ‘round, ‘Dial-heads! Tune in next
week for a few more New West reviews, and don’t forget to kick Old Man
Time in the ass for Tommy this New Year’s Eve ... Until next year—make
yer own damn news.
If you have local music news/gigs/events/CDs you’d like to see listed
in this column, or you’d just like to help me ferret out the REAL Grinch
who stole Xmas, send replies to: Tmygunn777@peoplepc.com.