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. Its rudimentary alt.country 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 its one of the best sounding records ever made, and even CD cant squash the feeling of a group of people playing in a room out of it. Michael Stipe wears the producer credit here, as on Chesnutts 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 Chesnutts immense disgruntlement, they seemed almost to be ashamed of the fact that, in Latent/Blatant, theyd 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 collections most arresting line, The tar is oozing from my little noggin. Florida, inspired, if thats the right word and Im not sure it is, by a friends suicide, is suitably parched and desperate, Chesnutts sandpapered throat declaring Theres 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 Stipes funky clavinet work.
The flipside of Chesnutts 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. Its like the more harrowing moments of Big Stars 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 Im basically depressed, and the astonishing Confusion, the albums most exquisite ache. Just a 4-track demo, a front-parlour piano and what sounds like a wavering harmonium enunciates the artists doubt and, yes, confusion in its glorious, living, breathing Sunday best, the relatively rigid melody sliding in and around Vics desolate croak.
Not that West Of Rome isnt 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, youll get the jokes.
VIC CHESNUTT Is The Actor Happy? (Texas Hotel)
The Athens, Georgia-based songwriters 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 Chesnutts 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 alt.country 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 thats 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 albums weak spot, Eleanor Rigby without the economic eloquence. Closer Guilty By Association finds the album at its barest, but even here theres 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.) Itd be a stretch to describe Is The Actor Happy? as slick, but perhaps some of Chesnutts earlier grit has been sacrificed in pursuit of the pearl.