Chuck Prophet was once described as the missing link between Bob Dylan and Paul Westerberg. It’s not a bad thing to be. On The Hurting Business, the former Green on Red singer continues to mine this fertile territory-Americana between folk-rock and punk-rock, between pedal steel and drum tracks, the mythic Southwest re-imagined in the age of globalization. In this strange space, the tropes of country rock are bent all out of shape. “I chased him off in a stolen Lexus/Rode across the plains/Through the state of Texas,” Prophet sings on “La Paloma,” while on “Apology” he laments that “Everybody wants an apology/CBS and the MTV.” Let Jimmie Dale Gilmore spend his time wailing about rivers and stars and stolen kisses: Prophet’s got other fish to fry. Hell, not just fry, but poach, bake, filet-you get the picture.
The Hurting Business will no doubt be categorized as alt.country, which is probably unfortunate. If it is alt.country, it’s more Wilco’s Summerteeth (folk-rock plus the Beach Boys) than Whiskeytown or the Bottle Rockets. Like his earlier Homemade Blood (1997), Prophet experiments here with rock, blues, country, folk, soul, and even hip-hop. This makes for an impressively diverse set of tracks-from the dark groan of “It Won’t Be Long” to the slow bluesy grove of “I Couldn’t Be Happier” to the insistent beat of “Shore Patrol,” in which Prophet reinvents himself as a kind of countrified Zack De La Rocha. All of this messing around with different styles and genres doesn’t come off as incoherent or unwieldy. On the contrary, there is a sense in which all of these songs are the same, stylistic varied approaches to a common set of American country-rock themes: love and loss, regret, taking off for the hills. This is country music, I suppose. But its of the smartest, most adventurous kind, willing to take chances in order to tell the old stories in a whole new way.