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Genius + Love = Soul, and a Death Boner as Well

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by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: March, 2005
Both sexual and innocent, seething and fawning, this is one complex and frothy stew of emotion that will linger with you should you let it in
by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: March, 2005
Both sexual and innocent, seething and fawning, this is one complex and frothy stew of emotion that will linger with you should you let it in

Vic Chesnutt
Ghetto Bells
(New West Records)

Rebellion is a funny thing. Just as soon as one rebellious act is sanctioned by the masses, another counter rebellion crops up. The recent punky-garagey-New Yorky, post-Ramones boogie which has become the New Techno, awaiting every marketing deal possible, be it for Carnival Cruises or yo-yo's, has given way to a whole breed of orchestral indie pop music. Personally, I generally like my music served up veiny and still wiggling, but there are some good things to emerge from the Emerson, Lakes and Palmers: the whole Canadian Godspeed You Cumbersome Band Name commune has produced some consistently stimulating and inspiring music, The Flaming Lips have continued to expand their cartoon minds in a reverse aping of the Japanese youth culture aping ours, all getting it wrong but making it so right. Even the Ghost of Harmony Past Brian Wilson is having resurgence, and while I think his maestro status is overstated, Smile is pretty good.

The problem with energies spent organizing string sections and children's choruses to inflate ones vision, the songs themselves end up taking a backseat. Wilco is producing some of the finest music in their ever exploratory career, but none of the songs have a future at Open Mic nite on merit alone. Fortunately, we still have irascible geniuses like Georgia's Vic Chesnutt that can simultaneously conduct the harp section and tug on hour heart strings.

His latest album Ghetto Bells rests on a bed of re-issues of his still-stupendous early albums, but as ever, he has created a singular egg of a record that borrows neither from his legacy or the vibrations in the air, but is its own critter. This one is noted for the all-star cast that backs up the man who should be our poet laureate: avant-garde torch-bearer Bill Frisell plays his field of guitars throughout while sub-legend Van Dyke Parks (the real genius behind Smile) turns up to organize the strings, play accordion and imbue this beautiful record with its dream-like cast. But with all this power, Vic's voice and guitar strum are the real stars. The lurching "Virginia" opens this with Vic crooning the spookiest love I've heard in a while, set assail on the choppy seas of Parks' string section and Frisell's reverb. "Yes Virginia, I love you, I love you, enough to die" he intones with deep dark love that only gets scarier when later in the song it becomes apparent that Virginia is indeed not some Isabella Rossellini drug starlet character in a David Lynch slow dance, but in fact, his mother. Vic is that kind of brilliant singer. He can totally sucker you in and then yank the rugs clean out from under you. His imagery is dead on when he says apropos of nothing "Like a puppy on a trampoline" in the twilight haze of "What Do You Mean?"

The real gem of the album is the anti-John Cougar Mellancamp tale of rural life "Ignorant People" Is he talking about his parents, or the debilitating car accident that has left him wheelchair bound all these years that marooned him, requiring him to rely on his instincts to propel him forward? Vic never tells you the direct story; his tales are ones of impression and smear, where the trace elements of living hang around forever.

This album is perhaps the most haunting one he has written in his dozen records. The recording is impeccable; making this feel like it is creeping out of your memory, peeking through the window of the collective unconscious. Both sexual and innocent, seething and fawning, this is one complex and frothy stew of emotion that will linger with you should you let it in. and to boot, there are lyrical diamonds like "A doily covering my death boner" on "Vesuvius" to every once in a while, shake you and make you wonder, did I just hear him right? Vic Chesnutt is one of those that has always lingered toward the top of my favorite singer-songwriter list but has somehow always been overshadowed by its more bombastic co-listees, but this one is a contender that no stalwart embracer of the dark night of the alt.country soul can touch. It's a majestic, spectre of an album I encourage you to wrap your ears around.

see more stories from outsideleft's Music archive »»

Alex V. Cook
Music Editor

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

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