VIC CHESNUTT West Of Rome (New West)

Long unavailable and now lovingly reissued on CD, bustling with extra tracks, a booklet essay and annotations, “West Of Rome” is my first experience of the music of the Atlanta, Georgia singer/songwriter, confined to a wheelchair by a car accident in 1983. It’s rudimentary Americana that predates the terms, Chesnutt deploying his cracked, dry, wavering voice on melodically uncomplicated songs, strongly reminiscent of fellow wayfaring travellers such as Will Oldham and Smog, more than a world away from the veneered orchestrations of Lambchop and Lullaby For The Working Class. Famed producer Hal Willner has said of “West Of Rome” that it’s one of the best sounding records ever made, and even CD can’t squash the feeling of a group of people playing in a room out of it. Michael Stipe wears the producer credit here, as on Chesnutt’s debut album, although he imposes no trademark stamp of his own; it seems as if he acts more as a facilitator, assisting Vic in capturing the sounds in his head.

The reconfiguring hand of hindsight sees the original opener banished to the bonuses. Once placed at the head of the album by an insistent record company, to Stipe and Chesnutt’s immense disgruntlement, they seemed almost to be ashamed of the fact that, in “Latent/Blatant”, they’d accidentally crafted an immediate, hook-laden pop tune, certainly punchier than the hesitant “Bug”, now occupying pole position. The album hits an early peak with the sweetly-titled “Lucinda Williams” – a song, like several here, that opens with a disarmingly Stipean vocal turn by Vic – which houses the collection’s most arresting line, “The tar is oozing from my little noggin”. “Florida”, inspired, if that’s the right word and I’m not sure it is, by a friend’s suicide, is suitably parched and desperate, Chesnutt’s sandpapered throat declaring “There’s no more perfect place to retire from life” over a piano melody that Mark Hollis might reject as too dreary. Here he sounds oddly suggestive of a weather-beaten, 120-year old version of Peter Gabriel in his “Nursery Cryme” pomp. “Stupid Preoccupations” is another showstopper, as misanthropy tangos delicately with self-loathing. The rollicking “Steve Willoughby” tempers its self-deprecation with a little hope, tumbling along on Stipe’s funky clavinet work.

The flipside of Chesnutt’s genius is that sometimes it wanders further towards the maudlin than is absolutely necessary, the barely melodic title track being a case in point. Inspired by the John Fante novel of the same name, only the insistent background Morse code piano figures hold the song together. It’s like the more harrowing moments of Big Star’s “Third/Sister Lovers” seeped in literature, without being anywhere near as intoxicating as that may sound. The album proper closes with “Little Fugue”, less than two charming minutes of gently circling acoustic guitars.

The best of the bonus material, aside from the previously discussed “Latent/Blatant”, includes a skeletal live performance of “Flying”, which, with chronic self-awareness, opens with the line “Well most of the time I’m basically depressed”, and the astonishing “Confusion”, the album’s most exquisite ache. Just a 4-track demo, a front-parlour piano and what sounds like a wavering harmonium enunciates the artist’s doubt and, yes, confusion in its glorious, living, breathing Sunday best, the relatively rigid melody sliding in and around Vic’s desolate croak.

Not that “West Of Rome” isn’t a fun album, of course, but the humour herein is as black as that oozing tar. And if your tastes stretch towards the more knotty, unpredictable end of the Americana spectrum, you’ll get the jokes.

VIC CHESNUTT Is The Actor Happy? (Texas Hotel)

The Athens, Georgia-based songwriter’s fourth album describes itself as “a collection of songs written to be performed before a live audience by Vic Chesnutt and his scared little skiffle group”. Ironically, at the time of its 1995 release Chesnutt’s friend and former producer Michael Stipe had just fashioned an album with similar intentions, the result being R.E.M.’s howling, petulant and substantially inadequate “Monster”. (Stipe makes a cameo appearance here, production duties being expertly handled by another R.E.M. associate, John Keane., and fellow knights of the Lambchop perform unspecified feats in undisclosed locations as well.)

Having shaken off the more tentative sound that characterised his excellent second album “West Of Rome” – the last vestiges of which manifest themselves in two brief, untitled concertina instrumentals - Chesnutt indulges in some almost rock star-like behaviour here. “Gravity Of The Situation” is crammed with big crescendos and a lyric that references local music publisher legend Bill Lowery, its streamlined sound about as blatant a bid for stardom as Chesnutt could fashion without abandoning his particular grouchy corner entirely. “Strange Language” and “Thumbtack” ride the grunge wave all the way to the shore, although the former neatly subverts any implicit associations with a plinking banjo coda.

“Onion Soup” typifies the newfound musical confidence that’s in bloom all over this album, with its meticulously marshalled melody and expansive, pinpoint separation – like “West Of Rome”, “Is The Actor Happy?” is a sonic delight even on CD, despite the denser arrangements. “Wrong Piano” offers some typically mordant humour – a case of sick keyboard syndrome, perhaps – and “Free Of Hope” overlays some apocalyptic visions and electric guitars over what sounds like Middle Eastern keening. “Betty Lonely” might be the album’s weak spot, “Eleanor Rigby” without the economic eloquence. Closer “Guilty By Association” finds the album at its barest, but even here there’s a velvet cloak of certainty that distances it from the perhaps more interesting “West Of Rome”. (Apparently R.E.M.’s frontman was unaware that the song described his relationship with Chesnutt when he provided backing vocals.) It’d be a stretch to describe “Is The Actor Happy?” as slick, but perhaps some of Chesnutt’s earlier grit has been sacrificed in pursuit of the pearl.