wednesday, june 20, 2007
No Other Love - Chuck ProphetThe artistic explosion on the left side of the dial in the mid-1980s spent itself quicker than most of us would like to admit. The largess of the great era of college-radio bands hit the high water mark about ’87 or so and the tide went out a lot faster than any of us were ready to handle.
I guess we aren’t any different than any generation watching our misspent youth grow smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirror. What is odd is that the youthful energy of this music provided so few mature artists came out of the decade scarred but smarter an in command of their craft. Sure, R.E.M. did, but they had been dining at the head table for quite some time anyway.
That the wreckage of Green on Red would give us that artist surprised no-one more than myself. Chuck Prophet was the second banana in a tragically overlooked Arizona alt-rock outfit. Today he describes Green On Red as a band, "whose country-meets-folk-meets-too many drugs Americana was one of the early warning signs of the alt country scare to come."
Yet, Green on Red wasn’t ever really part of the whole alt-country scene. They preceded it for one, but they also meandered along their own eclectic path as the growing popularity of the sound overtook them. I think the expression at the time was "cow punk" for those of you who can remember far enough back to the days of Scott Goddard and The Beat Farmers.
But all pretty good things must come to an end and so it was for Green on Red. Moving past the wreckage Prophet subsequently built a solid career as a session musician, wielding his formidable axe for the likes of Cake, Kelly Willis and the late-great Warren Zevon.
Eventually, though, he started recording his own records that flew happily under the radar until one of the tracks on this effort started getting a little bit of airplay in ’02. Of course that's when my life went a bit gang aft agly and No Other Love stayed off my radar for quite a bit longer. But I eventually got wise to this great album and thank goodness for that.
The Chuck Prophet here is a lot more assured than the weird experimentalist with Green on Red whose efforts missed as often as they hit. Prophet now knows exactly where he is coming from and moves through the longitudes of country and alt rock effortlessly arriving none the worse for wear at his intended destination. The recognizable hallmarks of the genre are certainly present but they’ve been transformed to a different purpose than you were expecting thank goodness.
Prophet has been lauded to his use of sampling and unconventional song structures in his works. Yet this is a bit of a red herring since it gets you ready for something completely eclectic and unusual and what you actually get is a seamlessly smooth operation that takes you exactly where the artist wants you to go.
The difference is that the songs Prophet writes use the techniques to their advantage. It’s something he learned listening to Beck and playing for Cake but, most importantly, it is the result of his approach to his work.
“As a songwriter, I'm a slave to traditional song craft,” he explained to The San Francisco Reader. “I see some people out there taking some sort of modern approach and trying to shoehorn it into their songs, but that doesn't really work. You've got to listen to the song's needs and go with that.”
In that same interview, Prophet professed his admiration for songsmiths along the lines of Warren Zevon, John Prine, and Randy Newman and even admitted that the vastly overplayed Bob Seiger was vastly underrated. All artists I’ve had to love then hate then come back around to appreciate and find folks like Prophet still standing there with a knowing grin on their face when I sauntered back into view.
No Other Love is a rock album with more than a fair dose of country, blues and then tossing more unorthodox styles of funk and even R&B into the hopper. By the time you are three songs in, you’ve bumped into at least dozen other genres as well. Prophet eventually concedes defeat and simply settles on just calling all this, “Americana.” Good enough for me.
That definition seems to include a collection of cascading keyboards, oddball audio snippets and the delightful background vocals of Mrs. Prophet, Stephanie Finch.
Because Prophet isn’t searching high and low for salvation, he’s found it among the strip malls, daytime TV and aimless narcissism of modern America. His songs talk about the mundane we all see out our driver’s-side window but reveal the profound we can’t see due to the hurry of where we are trying to get to.
Every song is a gem. Every one will be your favorite at one point or another. This record is one you are going to listen to for quite a few years to come and it's going to sum up a handful of perfect days you will be lucky to have the year you start listening to it.
The fade in the drum machine draped with the lazy guitar chords breaks my heart every time I hear the song. And the inviting confidential tone of Prophet’s vocals brings you out of the static into a warm inviting place you’d like to stay awhile. By the time you get to the chorus, he’s wrapped you in a blanket of nostalgia and un-forgotten hopes and you’ll have a hard time not playing the song again to figure out how he did it.
"Eloise" captures the wonderful upbeat feel of the Futurama theme in a song that seems to be about that bitter heartbreak that screws up your whole life somewhere in the mid-20s or so. Despite leaving you completely at a loss for where you are going and where you been.
The Bobby Mcfarren style intro to "What Makes the Monkey Dance" is a slow groove that could be about something you can’t mention on radio or maybe not. At face value, the title appears to offer a lyrical throwaway but it’s littered with brilliant lines like, “I got brand new drugs for the same old blues” and “Everybody’s got a theory, but nobody knows” that tell you a lot more than you intended to find out. Just like experience will.
The title track, "No Other Love" shows that Prophet has complete command of the acoustic guitar and his voice then – when he has us in the palm of his hands – he unleashes a small symphony of strings that swirl around and pull us in completely. It’s a song that draws on the cheesy 70s ballad as much as the classic country waltz and uses them both to encapsulate that gorgeous beautiful sadness of being hopelessly and wonderfully in love.
Melodies and strange samples clash with simple guitar lines and pitch-perfect vocals in "After the Rain." It starts melancholy and deliberate then slowly builds a momentum with accordions, slide guitar and dead on lyrics. It’s a slow beautiful journey and a song that will grow on you the more you hear it.
The best known song on the record is "Summertime Thing" which is understandable. It catches that brilliant glory of a California sunset and the way the light electrifies your senses and the crispness of the air sets your hopes alight. There is a timeless energy that fuels the late afternoons of your teen years Prophet is capturing and holding breathlessly in his hand.
Puremusic once called Prophet “greatest of the West Coast groovers” and this is the song he proves it.
Prophet is proof that while there ain’t a hope in hell of recapturing the glory of wayward youth it is possible to move forward to something else instead of wallowing around in the charred cinders that remain. Sticking with things long enough can bring a bit of insight and even wisdom on good days.
And, despite it all, you might find there is a burning ember of the fire still glowing somewhere deep down inside.
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