Vic Chesnutt, Elf Power, and the Amorphous Strums
Label: Orange Twin
“Open up your trash, then go take a bath (you’ll need one)”
In my last review I criticized Lambchop for abandoning their weirdness for maturity. Here, Vic Chesnutt (who collaborated with Lambchop ten years ago on The Salesman and Bernadette) teams up with Elf Power, typically less weird despite the Elephant Six affiliation, and The Amorphous Strums to show that an artist can mature without mainstreaming.
The phrase “The Old, Weird America” has been kicking around my head since I wrote the Lambchop review, and while listening to Dark Developments I read Greil Marcus’ essay of that title (a chapter of his book Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes). “The Old, Weird America” is overtly a discussion of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music but really a rumination on the way Americans invent our history and culture; in Marcus’ view, Anthology emerged as a reaction against both the stale commercial culture of America in the ’50s and the “dead language” of protest. Smith invented a mysterious old America in order to create a new America more to his liking.
Vic Chesnutt is part of that Old, Weird project of inventing a mysterious America. This is not simply a Vic Chesnutt album, but he wrote the songs and my first impression of the album was that it was just a Vic album with better production. Vic is a very American artist, and though there’s less high lonesome in his voice (my wife thought at first that he was Kurt Wagner) he’s still always draws on country traditions and idioms. At the same time, American self-invention is hardly the property of the rural, and Vic’s devotion to the profane seems to run a lot deeper than the influence of that old time religion. “Little Fucker” and its crude antecedents in the Chesnutt oeuvre perhaps owe more to Ben Franklin’s willfully low brown view than to Jimmie Rodgers or Flannery O’Connor.
That this was also an Elf Power album began to become clear to me with Laura Carter’s keyboard oddities in the implausible reggae of “Teddy Bear” (unfortunately for my thesis, this is not the Elvis song). This was also where I started to realize how good the writing was. I’ve tended to notice the crudely funny in Chesnutt’s lyrics: “That little fucker had a tear in his eye / The little fucker nearly draws you in / But that little fucker he’s good riddance,” but not so much “A gauze of frost is covering the clover / Muted morning oozing ocher / Heated honey glomming over / Animating dark and frozen / …A fairytale.” It was “We Are Mean,” though, that made me realize that Elf Power were full collaborators here. I usually think they inhabit some imagined England, but when the guitar solo from “I Wanna Be Your Dog” suddenly cropped up after the second chorus I began to understand that this album was doing the same thing Harry Smith did when he successfully constructed American Folk Music out of a bunch of commercial records from different cultural backgrounds released in a period of about five years. Smith probably hated the Stooges – who ever understands their grandchildren? – but their absurd, overdriven Detroit trashiness is at least as much a part of the weird America as Appalachian porches and the Mississippi delta.
Dark Developments shows much less of the goofiness that can sometimes make Vic Chesnutt songs sound like they belong on Dr. Demento. Despite some brilliant bleak humor (“if the old girl’s got a gun, then we’ve got a problem. The barrel is a faucet she wants to wash her hair“), I feel I can say that this is an important album without spending the next couple of weeks explaining myself. Vic’s writing is brilliant and beautiful, ranging from chants to punk rants to pastoral meditations to literary ballads to folk tales. Bob Dylan himself probably wishes he wrote “Stop the horse / Toss the bucket / Into the fishing boat / The congressman is coming in a wagon / I can already smell the country bloat” or invented Phil the fiddler, Paul the peddler, and Joe the Hotel Boy. Musically, the album leaps and mixes, quotes and corrupts; country feedback, rock roots and reggae, handclaps and harmonized backing vocals, all over some of the best bass playing I’ve heard, liquid runs that add as much to the melody as the rhythm.
For all its weirdness, this is a subtle album; like America, the sloppy diversity that makes it great can also make the greatness hard to see. There’s no way to summarize this album into a few words – when I say that it’s a very American album I don’t of course mean that everything in it has roots in America. The construction of a folk culture for a country without a folk is no simple matter, and the construction of myths for a country that is a child of the Enlightenment is even odder. Harry Smith recognized that for America this could only be done by embracing the contradictions; in his case, forging folk culture out of commerce, the exotic from the rural and domestic.
Dark Developments embodies this; Vic Chesnutt’s tendency to record each album with a different band and to blend different music together in eccentric ways is part of the America of the imagination. Chesnutt is never alone but never anything but an individual. Dark Developments pulls together things everyone has heard before into something as strange and unfamiliar as America.
by Bob McCarthy