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Crushing Society Under Their Wheels: Vic Chesnutt and Robert Wyatt

Chesnutt and Wyatt share more than wheelchairs, funny voices and cult followings. They also share the title of being possibly the last great songwriters.

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by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: October, 2007
woven from strings that bind us all, stretching to a nearly vanished narrowness, like Silly Putty, until something as innocuous as the breeze severs it
by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: October, 2007
woven from strings that bind us all, stretching to a nearly vanished narrowness, like Silly Putty, until something as innocuous as the breeze severs it

I never fail to be amazed at people's capacity and appetite for banality. I am not talking about current trends or anything, I'm talking about The Classics, and how ultimately The Classics consist of great talent going to great lengths to make the most agreeable milquetoast work. I bring the Beatles in as a prime culprit. Their talent and importance are both inarguable (trust me, I've tried) but their music hits me now as safe, maudlin and sometimes, a little insipid.

Robert Wyatt and Vic Chesnutt are two contemporary artists who are never insipid. Each of them has a frailty to their voices that transcends the less important coincidence that they are both wheelchair-bound and have been for years. Their frailty comes from viewing life in a non-insipid way and channeling that view into graceful, delicate and often difficult art. Both are capable of tremendous bombast and crumbling delicacy within the same song, while serving as smirking anathemas to dull pedestrian flourish and corny obsequiousness to milquetoast sentiment.

Robert Wyatt

Robert Wyatt came from the fabled group Soft Machine - in a nutshell, Pink Floyd but pinker - but after a fall from a third story window, he slowly left the world of bands and retreated into poetry. His work varied between an oddly homey variant of jazz-tinged progressive and stubborn, even anachronistic, protest songs supporting his ardent belief in Communism, but all contain that voice, that reedy, almost-not-there whisper of a lone man delivering his wisdom to the wind. I love Robert Wyatt's records.

Comicopera is broken into three acts, the first being subtitled Lost in Noise. In "stay Tuned" he seems to beg for those with ears to hear him through the melancholy fog of cymbals and oboes and whatnot,

If you can still hear me, if your still there,
Stay tuned, there is more to come.

as if it a last broadcast of a dying civilization. "Just as You Are" and 'You You" both seem to want to keep the "you" the recognized listener, the person receiving his transmission in his thrall, while "Anachronist" seems to show the artist's ultimate realization that even the deepest connections are tenuous as best. The nostalgic sing song lounge vibe here is woven from strings that bind us all, stretching to a nearly vanished narrowness, like Silly Putty, until something as innocuous as the breeze severs it.

Act two, The Here and The Now, finds Wyatt standing on the current calendar page with a suite of acoustic folky ballads reminiscent of The Velvet Underground's quieter moments. "A Beautiful Place" describes the quiet horror and pervasive comforts of a "Methodist home" awash in denial. "Be serious" is a firm decalartion of atheism while exhibiting a cautious envy of those that wrap themselves in the fallacy of faith-"how can I express myself when there's no self to express." "On the Town Square" is a tone poem of military snare, steel drums, and breezy saxophone, a whimsy of a thing, and I suspect this is how Wyatt feels about the society in which he is ensconced. He doesn't love it, but occasionally he likes it. "A Beautiful War" shows the teeth in his songwriting however with its sarcasm spun in the lightest possible melody that can still sustain it, which scarcely prepares us for the persistent buzz and chant of "you have planted your everlasting hatred in my heart" on the act's final devastating blow, "Out of the Blue"

Where does one go after all that? Italy apparently, since act three is an elegant set of Spanish and Italian poems set to Wyatt's brand of beguiling light fusion. "Del Mondo" is simply lovely, the reading of Lorca's "Cancion De Julieta" encapsulates the author's wonder and dread, but it is "Hasta Siempre Comandante" that provides the finest moment. His hot jazz combo of the damned works a skeletal samba around Wyatt' s ghost-like singing about Che Guevera. These songs betray a longing for elsewhere, and though those elsewheres have their own troubled histories, the soul of the people there, even the clich?©d variant he mines, offers respite from the smothering blanket of homogenization and zombification of his own society.

Vic Chesnutt
North Star Deserter

Vic Chesnutt has always had a warmer contact with the society he lacerates, like a Tennessee Williams character bound to the narrative in which he has been placed. Ghetto Bells produced with assistance of fellow artisan of immaculate disgust Van Dyke Parks was an exquisite expression of that still quiet tension that polite society creates. On North Star Deserter, he joins the resistance movement with the A Silver Mt Zion folks and Guy Picciotto from Fugazi and a few other brave souls unafraid to lay their dissatisfaction with society on the table, bare as the jawbone of an ass. The "Intro" eases us into the icy waters with Vic's weathered, nasal croon, accompanied by lone thus from a bass, spare as a passing thought. On "Glossolalia," this quickly is given over to the type of solemn procession those Silver Mt Zion folks do so well, orchestrated with sinister dynamics. There is a musical theatre aspect of Chesnutt's songwriting, the freeness with which he wields his emotional cutlass, and having partners as unabashed as these only serve this end. It is as heavy as a sack of severed heads.

As a longtime fan of Chesnutt's, the sonic bombast of this record is a welcome diversion from the increasing insular nature of his albums. He could teach a course in what soft-loud really means using the organ blasts in "Everything I Say" as a core example - the stillness is suddenly broken by a devastating wave. Even the comparatively caml and sweet "Wallace Stevens" benefits greatly from the wide brushtorkes with which it is painted. Songs like this and "You are never alone" really demonstrate what a powerful poet we have in Chesnutt, blithely intoning in the latter

It's OK, you can take Valtrex, and
It's OK, you can get an abortion
And then you can keep on keepin' on

With horsepower like this behind him, lyrics that once seemed whispered in your ear are now proudly read on the side of the Goodyear Blimp.

There are still those delicate moments in each song that will satisfy those who like Vic to themselves, and in those the group makes the soundscape act more as a landscape, supporting him aloft without chewing the scenery. "Rustic City Fathers" is an exercise in tremendous restraint here, Vic echoing like he is singing right behind you. "Over" is even more spare, a guitar barely there, peeking through the cracks in his vocals, allowing a line such as "like a pack of necrophiliacs" glow like the ember it is. In fact this album is perfect except for the mediation on war and/or death "Debriefing" which works as a great bone-dry A Silver Mt. Zion fiery diatribe, but lacks the delicacy of the other songs. It's still a good song though.

"Marathon" quickly dissolves from a simple spare melody into a hazy Ligeti dreamscape, and the closing track "Rattle" bids the records adieu disappearing into a rust-colored sunset, Vic proclaiming

Can't say I didn't rattle the load
But I'm keeping it on the road

which might be the perfect summarizing statement for Chesnutt, and for Wyatt as well. These are artists with amazing wit and anger, with the fearlessness to swing them around, but both find a way to fold their pointed messages into odd, personal envelopes that can still be readily opened by anyone ready to read them.

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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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