Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Rediscover: brute. - Nine High a Pallet

Nine High a Pallet

Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.

News of Vic Chesnutt's suicide in late 2009 was followed by numerous career assessments and eulogies for a musician whose mainstream profile was marginal at best. These articles largely focused on Chesnutt's solo work, overlooking his side projects and thus creating an incomplete, though highly sympathetic, appraisal of the artist's life and career. In some ways this is understandable. Though nearly all of his albums featured full-band arrangements, Chesnutt was never really able to shake the media's perception of him as the solitary, weirdo Southern folkie we first heard on Little.

Fifteen years after its release, Nine High a Pallet, Chesnutt's first collaboration with members of Widespread Panic as the lower-cased band brute., stands as perhaps his most successful side project, with the possible exception of the Elf Power-assisted Dark Developments. Recorded over two days in December 1993 and released in September 1995 - the same year as Is the Actor Happy? - the album mixes songs representative of Chesnutt's early 1990s style and subject matter with curiosity pieces (including a Hoyt Axton cover) as well as a few others that deserve consideration as among Chesnutt's best. Several songs could cozy up comfortably to Actor. The first half of "Westport Ferry" consists of guitar, occasional harmonica and pedal steel - immediately reminiscent of "Gravity of the Situation" - while the song's latter half utilizes a quiet-loud dynamic similar to "Free of Hope" and "Strange Language." The song's macabre story is vintage early Chesnutt; in this case, the narrator sings about, "Warm bodies in plastic wrap" and muses over"Brilliant men/...lost in that murky deep." "Cataclysm" closes Pallet on a comparable musical and lyrical note. With phrases like "Bang the hubcap slowly" and "The cataclysm is over/ They've swept away the shards," it's tempting to read the song as autobiographical - another thinly-veiled nod to the car crash that left Chesnutt paralyzed - but the song is ultimately ambiguous. Indeed, we never find out what exactly the cataclysm was, only that the "horror clocks" have been reset and that "the tragic path" has been cleared.

But a large portion of Nine High a Pallet is unlike anything Chesnutt had recorded previously, showing how Widespread Panic's Southern roots rock contributed to Chesnutt's loosest, loudest and most atypical songs up to that point. Severe and shredding electric guitar, bar-room keyboards and heavy percussion drive several songs, especially "Bastards in Bubbles," "George Wallace" and "Good Morning Mr. Hard On," maybe the least subtly-titled song in Chesnutt's entire catalog. "PC" is likewise an anomaly, its circus-like keyboards framing one of Chesnutt's more mocking, if somewhat less vitriolic than normal, put-down songs. The everyday family tale of "Protein Drink/Sewing Machine" ranks as one of Chesnutt's most sludgy, punishing songs, its nine bizarre minutes incorporating fuzzy guitars and echoed, distorted vocals. Chesnutt would eventually include a starker version of "Sewing Machine" on Skitter On Take-Off.

Nine High a Pallet can be considered Chesnutt's first truly "experimental" album; even more so than Drunk, it moves away from the folk-based structures of Little and West of Rome and also hints at the type of songs he'd record with increasing frequency after About To Choke. In light of Chesnutt's suicide some songs are like hard punches to the gut, especially "Blight" ("I set into a downward spiral/ Got an illness that was literally viral") and "Miserable," a tactile song of spider veins, alcohol and vitals that sounds like a thematic cousin to "Lucinda Williams" and "Stupid Preoccupations." There will now be plenty of time to find examples of ominous foreshadowing throughout this catalog, but Chesnutt's music is not a two decades-long suicide note. Nine High a Pallet showcases Chesnutt in top form and, above all else, dispels the popular image of Chesnutt as purely a solo artist.

1 comment:

RFWoodstock said...

Great live recordings from top festivals, concerts and in-studio performances...The Dead, Widespread Panic, Phish, Allman Brothers, DMB...Bonnaroo, Woodstock, Mountain Jam...many others...long jams, complete sets...24/7 Internet radio channel Radio Woodstock LIVE...also Radio Woodstock 69 with music from the original Woodstock era...both available at http://www.radiowoodstock.com or Google Radio Woodstock. Peace, love, music...life is a festival.