Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rediscover: Vic Chesnutt: About to Choke

Vic Chesnutt
About to Choke

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

The fact that Vic Chesnutt was able to release even one album on a major label is still almost impossible to believe. The bulk of his songs - sparse, dark, grimly humorous - made for a lousy mainstream fit, and perhaps not surprisingly, his time with Capitol ended after About to Choke was issued in 1996. But seemingly every year a major likes to champion a left-of-the-dial artist as a sign of its indie credibility, and, thanks in large part to the Sweet Relief II tribute album that preceded About to Choke, Chesnutt was once, however briefly, that artist.

If Capitol had expected a polished, ready-for-the-masses record, they likely were sorely disappointed. Chesnutt gave up none of his rough-as-sandpaper edges on About to Choke, as several songs featured Chesnutt alone on vocals, guitar, piano and a Yamaha Portasound keyboard. Its subject matter was likewise vintage Chesnutt, with the artist again returning to the types of meditations about life - and, more frequently, death - that dominated Little through Is the Actor Happy?. Almost every aspect of About to Choke, from the out-of-focus cover shot of the wheelchair-bound Chesnutt in a strangely-lit room to the songs' somber content, signaled that he likely didn't give a damn which label was releasing the record.

There is a noticeable difference in Chesnutt's lyrical style throughout much of About to Choke, and several songs are more abstract and oblique than those of the musician's previous albums. On spectral opening track "Myrtle," the singer hints at some misdeed - "I'm horrified now I could do such a thing" - and possibly a resulting cataclysmic event whose impacts can't be understood; he ends the song with one of the album's most visceral images: "It was bigger than me/ And I felt like a sick child/ Dragged by a donkey/ Through the myrtle}." The subject of the equally skeletal "Tarragon" is likewise open to conjecture; Chesnutt had stated that the opening line about someone "suckin' on a toothpick soaked with cinnamon" was inspired by one of his earliest memories, but the rest of the song remains mysterious, most noticeable for the haunting tone it takes as Chesnutt repeats the phrase "the boys in the back room played on." "Swelters" is similarly evasive - the singer liked to say it was about sex, and with lines like "after the cool/ When it's wound on the spool/ When it is spent/ You're rarely glad it went," maybe he was being sincere. Elsewhere, references to illness and death punctuate the album; between "Giant Sands," "Threads" and "Hot Seat," there are mentions of a blood clot, a brain that feels like a "brittle fragile vessel," "secret tequila shots and a patch of morphine" and, in another of Chesnutt's brutally direct lines, "shallow rattling breath/ With a wee cough."

Chesnutt returns to his narrative style on two of the album's most poetic songs; both "New Town" and "See You Around" are as literate and expertly crafted as anything he had released on his first four records. "New Town" is far removed from the "filthy steps/ The cold concrete" and small-town Athens that underscored so many of the musician's previous songs; instead Chesnutt offers, one assumes, a satirical depiction of suburbia, complete with a green police force, smiling politicians and old ladies with busy social calendars. His vocals are almost too warm and polite, an effect that heightens the song's cynical humor.

"See You Around" matches this lyricism in "New Town" while sharing plenty of its cynicism; it also might be Chesnutt's defining fuck-off song. Never before had his bile been more focused or vitriolic, the song's insults mounting as he practically spits out the words. The song begins simply, congenially, with an apology, as Chesnutt vows civility - "I'll save us both the hassle and leave" - apparently willing to shoulder the blame. But in the song's final verse there is an abrupt shift; the apology gives way to classic Vic venom, his voice rising to a mocking sneer as he gets in a few final shots, ending with one of his most barbed insults to date: "Well I'm sorry/ But your routine is coming off a bit ragged."

About to Choke is commonly considered one of the musician's lesser works; Chesnutt himself was relatively ambivalent about the album, but then again he was frequently dismissive of almost everything he'd done. He really didn't have time for the niceties, including those about himself, and if praise for the record in 1996 was a little muted, in retrospect time has been good to it. There are a few throwaways - the distorted "It's No Secret (Satisfaction)" and the goofy "Little Vacation" don't really fit in well - but there are enough good songs here that warrant a better standing for the album. That it was done under the watchful eyes and big budget of a major label is incidental; it's the content that matters, and with About to Choke, Chesnutt can be seen evolving as a writer even as he reused elements of his Texas Hotel albums.

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