Friday, December 18, 2009

Vic Chesnutt – two albums and a show

The only problem with having two new Vic Chesnutt records is the temptation to listen to both consecutively, which just may be more than most people can take. This is heavy, concentrated stuff, songs that approach like lurking danger, songs that convey the unavoidable pitfalls of self-indulgence and ultimately the inescapability of life’s shadowy depths.

To listen to Vic Chesnutt is to feel saturated in grief and despair, but also to walk hand-in-hand with the wise, to see beauty unexpected unravel from the lessons of life. The mind needs some time to work its way through the crevices in Chesnutt’s songs, time to smell the rotting roses along the way.

And those are just his records.

Live, Vic Chesnutt is a head rush, a grippingly emotional singer whose voice comes along like a raging windstorm. Some performers are great showmen – Vic is possessed.

I’m writing primarily about Chesnutt’s latest two records – At The Cut and Skitter On Take-Off, both released this year – as well as (belatedly) his performance at Club Congress two weeks ago, but because of his uniqueness as a songwriter and performer, to write about Vic at all is to write about him in total.

I haven’t listened to all of his albums, but I’ve heard several since my introduction to his music at the Hotel Congress Festival in 2006, both new and old, and I’ve never been able to make clear exactly where Vic belongs on the spectrum of folk/country/rock music. Perhaps he inhabits his own genre, much like Tom Waits does, because almost nobody else can even exist out on those crossroads of profoundly weird and exceptionally talented.

Call it Southern gothic country, spook-folk or asylum rock, whatever it is, Vic has an authoritative magnetism, a pull familiar to fans of horror movies, haunted houses, murder ballads and the grotesque, morbidly curious thrill of slowing down on the roadway to view a mangled auto. Like I said, while tempting it’s nearly impossible to listen to two albums consecutively.

Chesnutt rarely writes pretty or catchy music, but what he puts onto record is truer to the trappings of human vice and frailty than perhaps any other writer – not just songwriter, novelists, essayists and poets as well fall in behind Vic – working today. And it’s not just the big-ticket items like death, fear and despair that haunt his songs – Vic puts more of life’s mundane trickeries into song than anybody, and certainly more humor than I’ve yet described.

Ultimately, his songs are not meant to be fancy or popular, they’re meant to drag you, by the hand, into a mythically dark forest, step-by-step, until you realize you’re further in than you’d ever want to go by yourself.

Chesnutt’s two 2009 records are starkly different from one another in sound, reflecting a collaborative versatility and a willingness to give up some control and let other folks help find out where the songs want to go.

At The Cut finds Chesnutt teaming with Silver Mt. Zion and Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, the same band and production team that guided his first album on Constellation Records. The album opens with spare picked notes on an acoustic guitar, but the record’s overall sound is more of an electrified menace.

“Coward,” with Chesnutt screaming over pounding drums, and “Chain,” with an ominous and elemental power, are standout tracks, both live and on record.

But later on is the album’s true goldmine: “Flirted With You All My Life,” which may be as close to a signature song as Chesnutt has written yet. With a chorus of “O! Death!” he lays bare the suicidal longings that have crept up in his life. But the message is two-fold as Death also emerges as a cruel tease, one who ultimately must be told “I’m not ready yet.” In a song as shockingly personal as any I’ve heard, Vic manages to evoke both lightness and darkness in equal measure. Amazing.

Skitter On Take-Off, meanwhile, is spare and acoustic, with little more than Vic’s guitar and voice. Jonathan Richman and Tommy Larkins make up his “band” – with some spare drums from Larkin and harmonium and guitar from Richman – and production team this go around, and while it’s often softer sounding, Skitter may be even darker in lyrical tone.

Chesnutt edges political on “Dick Cheney,” marveling at the Machiavellian skills yet clearly reveling in the song's deconstruction of such a purely evil man, hiding instead of facing up to “all the unconscionable wrong” he did.

“Worst Friend” is a darkly hilarious, nearly eight-minute song about friends with a seemingly endless list of bizarre character traits (“You’ve got one friend who is really into feet, sexually; You’ve got one friend who could be a competitive eater; You’ve got one friend who claims to have taken a dump in the White House). But, in the kicker, Chesnutt sings “I’m the worst friend in the world / when you are down, I’m nowhere to be found.”

At Congress, Chesnutt played with a seven-piece band – basically his At The Cut collaborators – to flesh out his songs with a ragged energy. Even with plenty of backing, Chesnutt’s own guitar playing is always a stronger element of the show than I expect.

On “Coward,” the crescendo featured Vic screaming first into his microphone but then into his guitar pickup, producing a haunting wail. Shiver…

Song after song, the performance grew in emotional weight and there’s no way to adequately describe the attraction or appreciation I felt for such a roller-coaster ride that was so thrilling in both a visceral and an intellectual level. Few musicians can do precisely that, and it’s a shame that so few people are willing to look for it in the music they seek.

One thing is certain: the minor keys were made for Vic Chesnutt. And while that will never win him the fans his songwriting talents deserve, it also ensures that he’ll have the enduring and complete attention of every music fan he does capture.

I also suggest reading a some recent Vic Chesnutt interviews, at Aquarium Drunkard, NPR and Prefix magazine.

Vic Chesnutt - Flirted With You All My Life
Vic Chesnutt - Chain


jack said...

I am a music lover. I have a vast and updated music library and i know its really tedious to manage it because rules for Untangling the Music Library are confusing

jmhouse said...

Excellent write-up. I drove down from Albuquerque for the Club Congress show and, given recent events, I'm thankful I did. I don't recall seeing anyone taping that gig, but I'd love to stumble across a recording some day.

Once again, very well-thoughtout piece and I really appreciated the live review; it brought back some fond and now never-to-be-repeated memories.