Vic Chesnutt, Elf Power, and the Amorphous Strums
There are those who choose to collaborate, one suspects, because of an inability to create something meaningful on their own. I suspect that this is the dark undercurrent of many an indie rock 'n roll band member. In many groups, collaboration results in a sum that falls short of a totaling of parts, that a completed band version is somehow less than the songwriter going at it alone (see the YouTube clip of the acoustic version of anything). And then when the songwriter realizes this, they eventually sack the band and go it alone—guitar, stool and bared soul vs. the universe. That kind of trajectory only leads to isolation, ego-explosion and worst of all, Beatle-esque laptop artists.
Fortunately, Vic Chesnutt is not that kind of songwriter. He is a rare commodity that writes rather brilliant songs on his own, but when coupled with a group of other musicians, invests in them a spirit of greatness they never quite reached on their own. Take Lambchop, for instance - a perfectly fine, textured band that creates its own subtle magic on its many records you've never listened to, but when backing up Vic on The Salesman and Bernadette they created something cosmic. Ditto with Widespread Panic on their outings under the Brute moniker, and he even managed to make the dour Silver Mt. Zion dudes crack a smile on last year's North Star Deserter.
On Dark Developments, Vic finds a magic formula with Elf Power, and amiable band that had the mixed fortune of being one of the least exciting groups in the Elephant 6 cabal. Elf Power is one of many groups that generally elicit, really through no fault of their own, a shrugged "I like them well enough." My impulse is to champion a group like that, but I have shrugged the same reaction after listening to them. I find that while I too like them well enough, I rather love them with Vic Chesnutt at the helm, and maybe it's a spillover of the love people have for him. Vic is a guy people adore, who they want to call "Vic," even when his albums are a little unfocused (see Drunk, though I kinda love it for that very reason. See what I mean?)
Everyone is loosened up in Vic's presence, and the elves power these songs with a diminished variant the sixties-fetishism with which I (maybe wrongly) associate them. Songs like "Little Fucker" are aglow in naughtiness and tremolo stoney bliss, arrogant and searing. "Bilocating Dog" is a strange little story like those on Vic's excellent collaboration with Van Dyke Parks Ghetto Bells, one that speaks of mental problems and old ladies with smirking charm and slyly epic scale.
"Mad Passion of the Stoic" is a dense tale of damage and failure that offers the ballast for this breezy record - oh how wrong things sparkle and entrance hoarsely whispers the narrator over a slow burning melody that depicts the killing cleansing magma of which he sings in the second verse.
What is beautiful about having Vic Chesnutt around is that he apparently inspires extremes in his collaborators they seem reticent to undertake on their own, such as this dreary, delicious melodrama or the ebullient Dylan Thomas listing of characters in "Phil the Fiddler", where he lists off folks like Dick the Butcher and Tom the Bootblack as if he's flipping idly through a scrapbook in the attic only to stop and focus on The girl in the gingham dress. You have know idea what he's specifically talking about, but we all have ideas about girls in gingham dresses, and that is the power in Vic Chesnutt's songs.
Vic is nearly alone nowadays in being a songwriter able to evoke a greater narrative out of pointed details, and maybe I hear this because there is something about him that I love, and maybe he channels that love through the amplifier of his collaborators. That's a lot of maybe's—and what collaboration isn't?—that adds up to a resounding yes.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com