Saturday, October 25, 2008

Music Review - Vic Chesnutt, Elf Power, and the Amorphous Strums - Dark Developments

For anyone who’s still clinging to the image of Vic Chesnutt as a mostly-acoustic Southern gothic folkie, it’s time to give that idea up. Though his earliest albums were often rooted in such sensibilities – debut album Little in particular – there’s always been a strong current of experimentalism and electricity scattered throughout Chesnutt’s canon. Though such songs were usually structured around mostly-acoustic melodies and traditional structures with Chesnutt’s ragged voice often providing a sharp contrast, others like “Drunk” and “Old Hotel” hinted at such harder edges.

Chesnutt’s last couple releases have made these edges more obvious, albeit to mixed results. Ghetto Bells, which to these damaged ears sounded willfully difficult and today still comes across as mostly ponderous and plodding, found the musician experimenting heavily with various musical textures and production techniques. 2007’s North Star Deserter is perhaps Chesnutt’s most musically aggressive and abrasive album to date. Though that album sported the occasional downbeat song, it was overwhelmingly a damn loud record, full of distortion and other noises that made all the windows in the neighborhood shake.

Dark Developments combines these disparate aspects of Chesnutt’s music and also adds some new tricks along the way. Assisted by (genuflect please) Elf Power and frequent backing band, the Amorphous Strums, it’s the most accessible and consistently good album Chesnutt’s released since The Salesman and Bernadette. Those Vicophiles who still prefer his more melodic songs as well as those who take their Vic with a heavy dose of electricity will both be satisfied.

What’s most noticeable on this album is the way subtle melodies and background vocals are mixed with muscular and sometimes harsh musical arrangements. Nearly every song features a full onslaught of such vocals, which both compliment the melodies and reinforce the collaborative nature of the album. You won’t find many “Dodge” moments here; Chesnutt’s voice is usually just one of many throughout these songs. “Teddy Bear,” “Bilocating Dog,” and “And How” are close to being group sing-alongs, though the subject matter is a far cry from your classic community Kumbayas.

Other songs augment these backing vocals with enough distortion, fuzz, and noise to ensure some ruptured eardrums when played at maximum volume. The subtly-titled “Little Fucker” barrels in with harsh and loud guitars like a kick upside the head. “We Are Mean” carries a similarly aggressive tone; the last minute or so of the song is a racket of swirling noise. Whereas North Star Deserter sometimes seemed to intentionally disregard melody just for the sake of clang-boom-steam, even the louder songs this time around accentuate each song’s melody.

Though playing the game of lyrical analysis is always dicey, some themes recur throughout the album. Several songs are built around wholesome things like anger, disgust, and cynicism. Chesnutt sneers a litany of insults in “Little Fucker,” leaving the unnamed F-bomber in question to “Dry up in the sun/Like a raisin/Or a leather skeleton,” derisively concluding, “He’s good riddance.” In the wryly humorous and bouncy “And How,” Chesnutt takes some more shots at a hapless victim, suggesting that the individual “Open up your trash/Then go take a bath/You’ll need one.”

Like many of Chesnutt’s earlier songs, this release is rife with images of death and decay, often accompanied with dark humor. “Stop the Horse” references a possibly deceased politician whose age might now be counted in dirt years, with Chesnutt singing that he “Can already smell the county bloat.” The upbeat singing of “Teddy Bear” betrays the bleak statement that “He ain’t never coming back;” though who or what the Teddy Bear refers to is open to interpretation.

“Bilocating Dog” is pure dark comedy, complete with a morbid sense of humor and skewed rhyme scheme: “Johnny was a terrier/He had his first seizure/At the feet of old Auntie Lee/You should of heard her screaming.” It should also be noted that this emphasis on death is reflected in the album’s artwork; the painting included on the back cover, with its numerous political undertones, is itself worthy of close examination.

Though some of the new songs are occasionally reminiscent of Chesnutt’s previous songs – opening track “Mystery,” with is prominent harmonica and minimal instrumentation, wouldn’t be out of place on Is the Actor Happy? – Dark Developments marks a noticeable stylistic shift for the artist. Chesnutt’s singing becomes more controlled with each subsequent album; the days when he’d stretch a word like “Florida” into 14 syllables accompanied by sparse instrumentation are long gone. With musical and vocal assists from Elf Power and the Amorphous Strums, the album successfully merges Chesnutt’s penchant for melody with his more experimental and electric tendencies.

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